Friday, February 25, 2005

The Bing! of Judgment. Judgement? Judgment.

I'm sure you wouldn't be surprised to learn that I was a spelling bee champion. Well, only at the county level.

David and I just saw the new Off-Broadway spelling bee musical (a friend of ours is in it, and very good, too.) It didn't induce post-traumatic-bee-disorder as I thought it might. (I couldn't bring myself to see the documentary Spellbound for this very reason.)

You can participate in spelling bees from fifth grade to eighth grade; my first year in, I wound up winning my way to the Pima County spelling bee. There I was, a fifth grader - this would have been 1977 I believe - vying to be one of the four winners who would progress to the Arizona state spelling bee.

I don't know why it's called a "bee." Quilting bees, husking bees ... those are the only bees I can think of. These days I'd rather participate in a wine bee. A snacking bee. Or how about a laying-around bee. A Googling bee. A TiVo bee.


When you're a contestant, you're given a little booklet with words that are likely to be in the contest, divided into levels; each round in a bee gets progressively more difficult. But the smart contestants know that you can't just learn the words in the booklet. My parents went and got one of those giant unabridged dictionaries which we used for training; there are still little pencil marks next to words my dad quizzed me on, as we sat in the back yard of his condo.

I was raring to go at the county bee. I had somehow made a friend (Brad? Brandon?) who was in fifth grade at another school. Maybe there was a lunch for contestants beforehand, I don't know. Anyway, we hoped we would both win, but we vowed that if one of us had to spell the other out, there would be no hard feelings.

Because here's how it worked once they were down to five contestants: if someone missed a word, the next person up had to correctly spell that word, plus the following word. If they missed the original misspelled word, then it was cancelled out and the round continued. I believe if they missed their additional word, then the person up next had the chance to spell them out. It was when tensions got high.

The Pima County bee, like so many other things in Arizona, was not terribly well-run. My father was going crazy, because the "master list" of words apparently contained misspelled words. One word (aileron?) was an aviation related word; my father the pilot couldn't believe that the judges would not listen when he told them they had it wrong. This wasn't a word I was given - some other poor kid got knocked out with it. I don't know why they couldn't just flip open a dictionary, but apparently the master list was considered infallible.

When you came to the microphone and were given a word, you could ask for a definition, and also ask for the word to be used in a sentence. These days, you can also ask for the language of origin, but that wasn't one of our options then. It was down to the final five, and I came up to the mike.

"bi'zâr" the pronouncer said. I asked for a definition - "conspicuously unconventional or unusual." No problem. I knew that one. "B-I-Z-A-R-R-E."

The judge shook her head. "That is incorrect."

What? What? What? Did I accidentally say the letters in the wrong order? I swore I knew that one.

The next kid up took a wild shot, even though the definition did not match what he was thinking. "B-A-Z-A-A-R." He was also deemed incorrect.

It turned out that the "master list" had the word as "B-I-Z-Z-A-R-R-E." Yes, how ironic. And bizarre.

I don't know why none of the adults in charge recognized that simple word, but play continued. I was still in. Finally, Brad-or-Brandon missed a word, and I spelled him out. I don't remember what the word was. He most likely does.

There was a little article in the paper about it: "Friend betrays friend for spelling-bee glory." Or something like that.

So, it was off to the state contest. I went back into training, burning through that enormous blue dictionary. It was consuming me.

At the state level, they use a bell like you would find on a hotel desk to indicate that you have spelled your word incorrectly. You sweat your way through your word, hoping you do not hear the dreaded Bing!



Down they went, one after another. I was still in the contest after quite a number of rounds, one of the few fifth graders left. Then, I was done in by poor pronunciation.


Definition? "The power to coerce."

Again, these days they let contestants ask all sorts of things: is there an alternate pronunciation? How many languages did it pass through? If I had been able to ask either of these, I might have had a better shot; but I didn't recognize the word, so I was going to have to guess.

P-U-E-S-C-E-N-C-E. I went off the pronunciation, hoping that the word might be related to "adolescence."


No, it was "puissance," normally pronounced PYOOisuns. Ah well, I was ninth. A good showing for a fifth grader.

I didn't enter the bee the following two years. The contests had made me very self-conscious and anxious; my mother eventually sent me to a hypnotherapist to learn how to relax. Considering that this was the late 70s, that was pretty far-thinking of her. The therapist tape recorded the session, so that I could use it any time I needed to; that little "relax tape" kept me from turning into a complete nervous wreck.

By eighth grade, I was ready to take on the bee again. (Maybe this is why I feel so bad for Michelle Kwan at the Olympics; always so close, and yet so far.) I sailed through the county bee with no drama this time; they had apparently cleaned up their master list.

Then came the state bee. In one of the early rounds my word was "quarterdeck." Easy. Easy. So incredibly easy.


I spelled the word as pronounced by the Kennedys.

Bing. Binnnnnnnnng!

I couldn't believe it. I was the first person eliminated. I slunk to my seat. Okay, I cried. It was ridiculous that I had missed such an easy word. Rather than leave, I stayed through the whole bee, watching. I knew every other word that was given, all the way up through the final round.

It's just as well that I didn't go on to nationals. The pressure there rises to an incredible level of intensity; David and I happened to catch the televised national finals a couple of years ago, and I could barely watch. A girl squirmed as she faced a word she didn't know.


She asked every question she was allowed, and seemed to be on the verge of beginning to spell many times. This dragged on for minutes.

"Trudy, you must begin spelling now."

She took her shot: eplustere. It was aplustre, an ornament on a ship's stern. I couldn't bear watching. I cried a little for her. I also woke David up several times that night, doing my impression of the girl pronouncing and re-pronouncing the word.

Me-as-Trudy: "Eh-ploos-te-ry. Eh-PLUS-tre. Ay-PLOOS-tree."

David-as-himself: "Go to sleep!"

If you've ever been in a spelling bee, I bet that you remember the word you lost on. I will never forget "puissance," and I have "quarterdeck" burned into my brain with shame.

And you will forever be haunted by the Bing! of Judgment.

("Judgement" is British, like "colour" and "cheque"; "Judgment" is the American spelling, as decreed by Noah Webster.)

Puesence. Quaterdeck. Puesence. Quaterdeck. Puesence. Quaterdeck.



Blogger David said...

Fifth grade, first word of the entire spelling bee, they said concert, I heard consort - and all the other spellers later told me that they felt so much better after that.

11:02 AM  
Blogger David said...

There was a character in the spelling bee musical that reminded me exactly of Rob. His name was Leaf Coneybear, and he wore a cape. (Posted by the real David!)

12:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...



"Should have asked for the definition!"

Sorry... didn't know there were two spellings. All I knew was the "walking down the aisle" one. whoops.

7:25 PM  
Blogger jwer said...

I lost out on "chandelier" because I omitted the first e, much like your "quaterdeck" shame... meanwhile, I've always pronounced it "pwee-sauhnce" and spelt t'other'n "judgement" because I hate the "dg" of the American spelling. How bizzarre.

6:18 AM  
Blogger Sherry said...

I've never been in a spelling bee (luckily, I'd probably pass out on stage) but I saw the one televised by ESPN last year and was in tears when the little boy won at the end!

6:33 AM  
Blogger Frenzy Lohan said...

I made it to the state levels of the Geography Bee in 8th grade, but I was knocked out in the final round. I said "USSR" when I should have said "Russia."

9:12 AM  
Blogger Nan said...

what is a "Husking bee" ???

8:54 AM  
Blogger crumblord said...

A husking bee is where you get together to husk corn. You know. A husking bee.

7:12 PM  

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