TO BEE OR NOT TO BEE
Last night, millions of Americans were spellbound (literally), as they watched ESPN’s coverage of the finals of the Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee.
I was one of the viewers, as I am a long-time fan of spelling bees in general, and the Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee (the granddaddy of them all) in particular.
But as I watched America’s brightest young students compete last night, I couldn’t help but feel a little regret. You see, 52 years ago, I came within just one or two letters of heading to Washington to compete for the national spelling bee championship.
In the fall of 1963, I was cruising toward victory in the Frayser Elementary School Spelling Bee. I was 11 years old and the biggest nerd in sixth grade. (Actually, since I was only five feet tall and weighed 85 pounds, I was the littlest nerd in sixth grade.) I made it through the Bee’s first four rounds, calmly knocking off such challenging words as “lackadaisical”, “obsequious”, “peripatetic”, and “obstinate.”
It was down to me and Danny Michaels, mano a mano, in a verbal fight. And not just verbs, but nouns, adjectives, and adverbs as well.
I wanted to win that spelling bee more than anything in my life. You see, I was the worst baseball player in the history of little league, a bumbling right-fielder for the Dellwood Baptist Cardinals. I was too small for football and basketball. The only sport I was any good at was dodge ball, and that was only because I was so tiny nobody could hit me.
I was at least three inches shorter than any girl in my class. I wore braces and suffered from pre-adolescent acne.
But as I sat on the stage of the Frayser Elementary combination auditorium and cafeteria that day, I was confident that my nerdom was about to end. I was competing in the only sport I would letter in. Not just one letter but several. I just knew that when my moment came and I triumphantly held the Frayser Elementary School Spelling Bee trophy above my head like the winner at Wimbledon, my braces would fall from my teeth, my acne would disappear, and I would grow a foot taller.
But then, as I stood before the microphone with v-i-c-t-o-r-y in my grasp, I was suddenly the victim of a bee sting. “Onomatopoeia,” said Mrs. Choate, my sixth grade teacher and the bee emcee. (She was the Bert Parks of the Frayser Elementary School Spelling Bee.)
“Oh my God,” I gasped.
“No,” replied Mrs. Choate. “Onomatopoeia.”
Stay calm, I told myself. “Can you use it in a sentence?” I asked Mrs. Choate, in a desperate attempt to buy some time.
“The English teacher asked the class to write an essay on the topic ‘Onomatopoeia’,” replied Mrs. Choate. Well that sure helped.
I cleared my throat, and in a squeaky, nerdy voice said, “onomatopoeia… o–n–o-m–a–t-a-p-e-a.” DING! exclaimed Mrs. Choate’s desk bell, signifying that I was a l-o-s-e-r.
Danny Michaels then strode to the microphone, looking for all the world like Mickey Mantle stepping up to home plate. He calmly spelled “meretricious,” (as in “we wish you a meretricious and a happy New Year.”), and was declared the winner of the 25th Annual Frayser Elementary Spelling Bee. The crowd went wild. Danny was immediately mobbed and kissed by every girl in sixth grade. I was left alone to wipe the tears off my thick glasses.
I went on to become a lawyer. Danny moved to Hollywood and became a screenplay writer. He recently won $300 million in the powerball lottery, and is living with Jennifer Aniston.
Over a half century later, I still remember how one lousy, impossible-to-spell word sentenced me to a lifetime of nerdiness. To this day, I remain convinced that if I had only been able to spell “onomatopoeia” I would now be living in Hollywood with Teri Hatcher, and Danny Michaels would be writing this column.
I remain to this day a world-class speller, and if you find any typos in this column, blame spellchek… opps! I mean spellcheck.