UNDER OUR SPELL
I had never even heard the word kewpie. I didn’t know it was a little doll, even though I was a ten-year old girl in the fourth grade.
I spelled it c-u-p-e-e.
And then, after Anne W. spelled it correctly and went on to spell another word correctly, I became the second-place winner of the 1976 Mitchell County, Kansas Spelling Bee. I can’t remember her winning word; I was too traumatized.
In my grade-school career, I would go on to compete every year after that, but I would never place again. I will never get over it.
Sometime in my college career, our dear mother sent me a clipping of a newspaper headline. It read: “Yeah, but why ‘kewpie?’” It is buried somewhere in a stack inside a box within a crate; if I knew where I would have dug it out.
It matters not, only that Mom was always so thoughtful, and that I never won a grade-school spelling bee.
Suzanne never won one either, and, apparently, she, too has carried the wounds with her well into adulthood.
If you have spent any amount of time around us when the printed word is misspelled, you will know without a doubt that this is simply not acceptable with either of us. We have taken it upon ourselves to be the spelling police, and will right these grievous wrongs whenever they confront us.
And, we will probably insult the person who misspelled it as well.
Gail is a spelling freak like we are, even though she likely has more important things to worry about; work that must be done. She wasn’t able to join us for the bee, but wanted everyone to know that she was able to spell our error words correctly. Perhaps all three of us will be able to participate together in a future bee; we have already begun to discuss this possibility.
Sometimes, however, life has a way of humbling those who put themselves up a bit too high. Like the time I bought a personalized plaque for a co-worker, and I misspelled a word on it. And I had it engraved that way.
Her name was Michelle, and she was an incredible secretary–this was way back when that term was still politically correct vs. administrative assistant. I wanted to honor her on Secretary’s Day, so I had a name plate engraved that said:
Except that ‘extraordinaire’ has only one ‘N.’ I swear I looked it up, and there were two. That is a permanent reminder that I should never criticize those who misspell a word here and there.
Another reminder confronted me just last week.
Suzanne’s daughter Julia lives just down the road in Manhattan, Kansas, where my firstborn goes to college, where three of Gail’s four children attended or currently attend college, where Suzanne’s daughter graduated last year, and is now gainfully employed there. So, when she saw this, she knew her mother and godmother would want to be part of it:
We knew this was our calling for last Thursday night, and we cleared our schedules to make it happen. We arrived promptly at seven to sign up, had a quick dinner,
And then made our way back across the street to re-live those glory days, and make new ones as champion adult spellers. We were pretty confident that one of us would walk away with the purse, which was the sum total of the $5 entry fee each contestant paid. There were only eight contestants, so $40 would be the bounty for the champion. It was unspoken that surely one of us would leave there with it, and the other would be runner-up. We are formidable spelling forces, in case I haven’t made that clear.
So, we got down to business. Apparently, we were more business than the emcee, as the 8:00 p.m. start time got pushed back to allow more time for more contestants. We were there for blood, so we were primed and ready to start whooping up on everyone else at 8:00. A storm was looming west of our small city and heading this way, and we were one hour east of there. It was projected to hit around 11, so we needed to get the show on the road so we could get on the road.
It commenced at 8:30, and we were pumped. Suzanne and I were second and third respectively in contestant order. Suzanne breezed through her first word, and while I was waiting for mine to be read, I felt something hit me. Suzanne, acting as the audience heckler, had thrown her shoe at me.
It didn’t ruffle me, and I spelled consignment correctly.
About six years ago when Suzanne hadn’t yet moved to my small city, we met in the middle, in Beloit, Kansas, to watch our niece and her brother compete in the same bee I never won. The anticipation was high; this kind of competition brings out the warrior in both of us. We can sit silent, in an almost-comatose state during any sporting event, likely with a barely detectable pulse. But bring us to the spelling bee, and we are the fans extraordinaire. We come alive. We pondered the idea of tailgating in the school parking lot prior to the event; it began at 1:30 p.m. so a lunch would have been timely. We thought about painting our faces and sitting in the front row, too. In the end, we did neither. But let it be noted that we seriously considered both. That’s how serious we are about it.
The bee ended with our niece in second place, just like her aunt Kathleen did almost forty years before that in the same competition. Her brother didn’t place. No matter for them, the fun was in the spirit of the game.
To my knowledge, neither my niece nor my nephew were traumatized by the fact they didn’t win. I am so glad they will not carry this weight around forever like their aunt still does.
About twelve years ago, when I was working at the hospital in our small city, I had a dream that I won the All-Hospital Spelling Bee. Clearly, my subconscious hasn’t recovered either. I remember that the word I had to spell correctly that the runner-up fumbled was “insufferable.” Moving on, I then had to spell the winning word, which was selected from a bank of patient’s last names, as if HIPAA would ever allow that. When I told Suzanne about this dream, her jaw dropped at the winning word. It was her mother-in-law’s maiden name. I had no idea.
The last thing I remember in the dream was me asking this question: “Does this mean I finally get to go to Topeka?” (to the Kansas state spelling bee).
I am old enough now to enter the Senior Spelling Bee in our county. I waited anxiously until I turned fifty, but then I didn’t enter. I had two fears: First, I was afraid I may go out on a ridiculously simple word, and my self-perpetuating illusion that I am a champion speller would be shattered. Second, I was afraid also that I may have to go up against a former patient of mine, and I would have no mercy, effectively smoking them out of the competition.
In the bee on Thursday, the first fear came to reality. The word tripped me up, and I was out. I can’t yet bring myself to tell you what the word was. I am still licking my wounds.
Since this was in the basement of a bar in a college town an hour away on a Thursday evening with a storm brewing, there was little danger of competing against a former patient—there were none there.
Suzanne was still in, and I was truly happy for her—even if she threw her shoe at me in the first round. Let it be known that I didn’t throw anything at her.
In the end, Suzanne placed second. She backed down to a fine young man named Steve, and was awarded several wooden nickels to be redeemed for libations at the hosting establishment. She passed them on to her daughter.
We made it home and into our respective garages literally seconds before the storm unleashed its fury.
Let it be known that although neither of us walked away with the champion’s purse, this is only the beginning. We are now officially on the circuit, and plan to seek out and find many more spelling bees we can compete in, and likely win.
Please let us know if you hear of any.
There is a certain military rank that is sometimes shortened to “Sarge” as a nickname. How do you spell the full title of that rank? Be careful, it may be tricky for you, too.
I’ve once again been humbled. Just when I needed it, life brought me down a notch or two. I realize I am not the spelling extraordinaire I thought I was; that I ain’t as good as I once was. Somehow, Suzanne and I are making peace with our defeat last week. We will back, however, stronger and smarter than ever before. And, we are feeling quite sanguine about it.
Congratulations, Steve. Just watch your back…
HAPPY LABOR DAY!