By Sharon Mast
Soliloquy. S-O-L-I-L-O-Q-U-Y. Soliloquy. There is only one arena in which a word is stated, spelled, and then restated, and that is in the annual ritual of the competitive spelling bee. Occasionally, when I hear announcements on the radio of National Spelling Bee winners, I get a sympathetic reaction of knotted stomach and pumping adrenaline, remnants of a past career as a spelling bee racehorse.
I first rose to spelling bee fame on the Fox TV show, Wonderama, when my Girl Scout troop got tickets to attend and participate in the show. I beat the penultimate player by correctly spelling “chemistry,” and then capped the win with the spelling of “bristle.” It was a pretty big thrill to see myself applauded on TV for something that anyone who spent every waking hour reading could probably do.
Once my fourth-grade teacher at our neighborhood school in the Bronx got wind of my victory, my life would never return to pre-victory normalcy. I was evicted from my seat at a large table with the usual gang and given a small desk, facing my teacher, positioned at her side with my back to the other children. My sole task now was to learn successive lists of spelling words. Their meaning was beside the point; only their spelling counted. Though I found the task absurd, I sensed my teacher’s deadly seriousness. Both our fates now hinged on my successfully memorizing this esoteric lexicon.
At nine years of age, I began to understand the meaning of the saying, there is no such thing as a free lunch. School wanted something from me. The years in which I had used school to forge this “smart” identity for praise and approval, when, really, the work was so easy: this was my payback. No P.E. teacher could turn me into a first-class athlete; I was the only fourth-grader in the sea of bodies on the gym floor who couldn’t do a sit-up. And no science teacher alive could turn me into a Science Fair winner; I was the only kid in the class who didn’t realize that the flames leaping from Howard Haskell’s project on lightning, made from a light bulb and cotton balls inches from me at our shared double desk, were not an intentional part of his presentation. If I had, I might have scattered to the walls of the classroom along with the rest of my classmates instead of remaining, entranced, in my seat. But the school could exact its price for all those easy A’s by turning me into a spelling bee champ.
The following year held the special anxiety of having to trump the previous year’s televised performance. Seated in the auditorium, waiting for the usual assembly business to conclude—pledge of allegiance, color guard, school song—I could feel my shoulders begin to tense. My teacher beckoned me to come forward. I did, slowly.
“How many “m’s” in accommodation?” she whispered.
“I don’t know.” The question terrified me. She handed me the keys to the classroom and ordered me to go get a dictionary. I flew upstairs, jiggled the sticky keys in the lock, and finally managed to open the door. My eyes darted around the classroom, but for the life of me, I could not spot a single dictionary. After racing from one bookshelf to another and flinging open cupboard doors, I hurried back to the auditorium.
“I couldn’t find a dictionary!” I whispered to my teacher, in defeat.
“But there’s one in every desk,” she said.
I stopped breathing for a moment and just stared at her. In this perfect state of nightmarish panic, I went out on “mattress,” omitting one “t.”
This failure should have ended my spelling bee career. And yet somehow, the following year in sixth grade, I managed to win. When I got to junior high school in the seventh grade, I learned with dismay that my reputation as a “winner” had preceded me. A new pack of teachers salivated at the thought of using a champion speller to win some glory for themselves. They set me to work at the all-too-familiar lists of words. But this was a step closer to the big league, and a win at school didn’t end there; my eighth-grade victory led me to the district-wide spelling bee. It was held at another school in an unfamiliar part of the Bronx, and my father drove me there. By this point, adolescent rebellion had begun to kick in. I was ever respectful toward my teachers, even when I opposed them, but I was not above using passive-aggressive tactics at home. Having “allowed” my father to drive me there, I then told him to wait in the car,
“It will make me too nervous if you watch me,” I said, punishing him for colluding with my teachers in this annual farce. He seemed disappointed, but obliged. After the spelling bee, I got into the car and stated flatly, “I won.” We drove home in silence.
Unfortunately, the district-wide win propelled me to the city championships in the spring of that school year. I would have to go. The event would be held at Town Hall in Manhattan. By then, I had already started roaming around the city on my own, so I assured my parents that I could find my way to the bee and get back home to the Bronx without their help. This was the big time, and I had practiced hard. Contestants from all over the city would compete for a crack at the national championship in Washington, D.C., the ultimate glory. Seated on the brightly lit stage of a full concert hall, I was unable to gauge the size of the audience in the otherwise dark auditorium. I had uneasily played this game for years, detesting the transparency of my teachers’ encouragement, detesting my own complicity in winning such dubious honors. If a secret part of me wanted to win, the rest of me loathed the toadying teacher’s pet I had become. I felt myself becoming dizzy as I waited my turn. Town Hall seemed to revolve as I looked up into the blackness. Either you get out now, I thought, before they break for lunch, or you’ll be forced to return for an afternoon of this torture.
It was my turn. “Jaguar.” J-A-G-A-R. Jaguar.”
“Ohhhhh,” commiserated the master of ceremonies, and the audience along with him. “And I bet she knew that one, too!”
At the same time that my father decided to leave work early and head uptown to see me compete, I was walking steadily toward the building’s exit like any hostage trying not to draw attention to her escape. Out on the street, the world seemed more vivid than ever: the feel of the warm spring air on my skin, the crowds, the blaring horns, the look of my powder-blue shoes on the sidewalk. In a minute, I’d head to the Village to meet the boyfriend that my parents didn’t know existed.
I was done.
And I took my rightful place among the rest of the people who were making their way somewhere.
Sharon Mast was born and raised in New York City. She did postgraduate work in sociology in England and taught in New Zealand. After 17 years abroad, she returned to New York, retrained as a special education teacher, and taught reading and writing, first to adjudicated teenagers in the South Bronx, and then to adolescents with learning challenges in the suburbs of New York. Her poetry addresses issues of family, aging, illness, and death (the fun stuff); her creative nonfiction is largely autobiographical. She has been published in the Cortland Review, and currently lives in Columbus, Ohio.
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