Thursday, 11 April 2013

"J" is about how I became a cracking good speller, in spite of myself...

I don't have a particular fondness for the letter "J". In fact, it's linked to one of the worst memories of my young academic life and may explain why I became so fanatical about spelling.

When I was in the fifth grade--about age 9-10, I was already a good speller. I always scored 100% on Miss Dunaway's weekly spelling tests and was proud of it. Go on, throw me a pop quiz. I would spell 10 out of 10 words correctly every time.

I don't know why I could spell well; I just could. Nobody else in my family was ever called out for this particular skill; in fact, quite the opposite. They had other talents--like they could all water ski and ice skate, at both of which I was abysmal. It didn't seem fair but I got what I got. And they got the good stuff.

Eventually, I was recognised as the number one speller in my class. When I was in elementary school--in the late 1950s--this wasn't necessarily a good thing. Only "teacher's pet" people and real nerdy types were the best spellers. Or 'dorks'. This was about the time the word 'dork' came into being in Orange County, California. The last thing you wanted to be was one of them. It was far better to be a 'neat', popular kid. It was a burden, being able to spell, an automatic demotion to the lowest of the low.

Imagine my horror when Miss Dunaway announced that there was to be a District Spelling Bee and the two best spellers from our class were going to represent the fifth grade. It was me and a light blonde, blue-eyed kid with a square head and big brown thick-lensed glasses that had a strap on them so they wouldn't fall off. I'm not making this up: his name was Herbie Delight. The other kids said he was sweet on me. Alas, I was enamoured of Price Locke, a star-quality blonde kid with a cowlick. Three girls liked Price. Life just isn't fair, is it?

So off we went to the Spelling Bee on the appointed Sunny Southern California afternoon. The details fade but I do remember these things clearly:

  1. There were many children there; it must have been Kindergarten to 6th grade.
  2. It was noisy (see number 1. for explanation)
  3. There were nearly twice as many parents as children--so, hey, a lot of people overall.
  4. Both of my parents were there. This is big stuff because my dad didn't go to my concerts and other life events very often--he was busy being a flight test engineer and helping people break sound barriers and eventually go to the moon.
  5. I was wearing a red plaid dress my mother had made me (she made all my clothes). It had a full gathered skirt but I didn't have any nice full petticoats yet. They were on my Christmas list.
  6. I had on horrible brown saddle shoes which were corrective in nature because, apparently, I had something wrong with my feet that needed correcting (I have good feet now so the embarrassing shoes treatment must have worked).
  7. I was terrified and didn't want to be there at all.
Does anybody ever actually like these things? I didn't. The only worse thing was having to play organ concerts when my organ teacher--Miss Margaret--decided periodically to hold one and show off our budding musical talents. She had about two dozen Pekingese dogs and they were always all over the place so it made for an interesting event for a lot of reasons. (I'll save that for the "P" day blog, shall I?)

Cutting to the chase: I made it to some sort of semi-final or maybe even the final round in my age group. I spelled some pretty impressive words. It's different when you're in the fifth grade and you don't even know what a word means. Like peripatetic. Or chrysanthemum. Or duodenum.  I could do it. I did it. I was almost there.

Miss Dunaway was with me and I could do it for her. But could I do it with my awe-inspiring whiz of a father, Mr Science, in the audience? That remained to be seen.

It was for all the marbles. There were four kids left, maybe six. I can't really remember, probably owing to some sort of psychological trauma filter my brain immediately invoked afterwards and still hasn't been willing to let go. Herbie had long since bowed out; I have no idea what he couldn't spell but I knew that when I heard him spell it, he had blown it. Poor Herbie.

A hush fell over the crowd. They always say that, don't they? Maybe it did and maybe it didn't. The spotlight, though I'm sure there wasn't one, felt like it had fallen on me. It was my turn. My turn. All the marbles. What did that mean, "all the marbles?" I couldn't remember. Oh god please let this be a word I can spell. I promise I'll clean my room without being told. I won't pick on my little brother. Honest, I won't...

"Cindi Saunders. The word is JURY. Please spell JURY," said the person with the microphone. Did I breathe? No. Did I think? No. Do I know how to spell JURY. Yes. Did I say "Jury, J-U-R-Y, Jury" in the prescribed manner? No. I did not.

Immediately, and for reasons unknown to this day, the image of my mother's Ladies Home JOURNAL Magazine, laying on the coffee table in the living room, crowded into my mind and overloaded every synapse, coursed through every tiny artery, sang in an exalted voice until I heard nothing else. 'I can spell it, I can spell it! I can win, I can win!

"Jury, J-O-U-R-Y, Jury," I said, loud and clear.

Well, that was that. It was over. I'm sure my parents weren't upset; I'm certain they were proud that I got there in the first place and got to some sort of final round. I, on the other hand, was humiliated, mortified, embarrassed and probably in tears though I don't recall that either. How could I miss spelling a four-letter word? I'll never know. I choked. I panicked. I didn't stop and think.

It didn't seem like it at the time but it was a good thing. I remember clearly, as if it had happened earlier this afternoon, vowing that I would never get caught again not being able to spell a word. And I seldom do. It's a heavy burden to bear sometimes--people are always saying things like "Oh, can you spell jaculiferous or juglandaceous or jectigation...?" and off I go again, hoping that I can, but at least thinking it through carefully. I'm much more careful now. 

Miss Dunaway would be proud of me.

Oh,, like, whatever became of Herbie? Well. I just Googled Herbie and there is one Herbert J Delight who's my age in the entire United States. He's living half an hour away from where we went to school. And his father is still alive, at age 95. Well, so is mine, just coming 90. Amazing. I haven't thought of Herbie in years. (Please don't tell him I said that.)

And Price Locke? Amazingly, he's right there, too, not three miles from where we grew up--over fifty years later. I think I'll stay right where I am.

Want to know more about the history of the National Spelling Bee in the U.S.? Click here!



  1. Oh Cynthia, I understand your pain. In a spelling bee, I once spelled the word `temperature', tempreture :( I never misspelled it again.

  2. So close! Hey, the pressure is huge. No shame in missing an easy word.
    And did you know you still have word verification on?

  3. Glad someone is a good speller. I sure don't fit that bill.

    It's hard when you do something like that you know the correct answer. But awesome that it taught you something.

  4. Funny the things we remember....

  5. We didn't go in for the spelling bee in the UK when I was growing up. I'm not sure I would have been very good at it to be honest. Much better now, thankfully :)

  6. I was a good speller as a child too. We didn't have spelling bee competitions in India although I used to read about them in books. We had a few class tests and I was so excited to have been the only student in class who had topped the spelling test. Proudly conveyed it to my teenage cousins who were visiting. I must have been about 8-10 at the time. They took one look at my book with the test and the teacher's marks and burst out laughing. I had got one word wrong and the teacher had actually given me full marks on it. Ironic? Total embarassment, needless to add!!

    Four Leaf Clover