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Spelling Acumen

Spelling Acumen

When I was in the eighth grade at Plaza Park Elementary School, I dreamed of being the next Scripps National Spelling Bee Champion. This was not necessarily an unrealistic dream. The previous year another Plaza Park student made it through the school, county and state championships and ended up traveling to Washington, D.C., where the national event has been held since its creation. If she could do it, why not me? I was supremely confident that I could follow in her footsteps and go even further in the competition, if I just studied the spelling bee pamphlet provide by the Evansville Press. Originally organized by the Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky in 1925, I decided that my Kentucky connection had to hold some weight. A twelve-year old still holds those kinds of false assumptions about life, and so I proceeded forward in my quest to become the next Scripps National Spelling Bee Champion.

As an honor student, I never received anything other than an “A” in spelling. Spelling was an actual school subject in the fifties and sixties. How well a person spelled, made a difference to people, to parents and to the world. It mattered to me as well, so each night I studied the pamphlet asking Mother or Daddy, or Sissy, or anyone who could read, to quiz me on the list of provided words. I memorized each and every word in that book. There were no requirements, or need, to learn the derivation or origin of the word in that era. Straight memorization was the key, and I was very good at that.

I am certain my family tired of my incessant desire to practice my spelling, but there was a carrot I was reaching towards, and I believe I wanted that carrot more than I wanted to be the National Spelling Bee Champion. Since I was six years old, I had to wear glasses. “Blind as a Bat” was the diagnosis at the beginning of second grade when I couldn’t see the blackboard sitting in the back of the room. Apparently, this honor student and overachiever didn’t perform too well in the back row. And, If it had not been for Mrs. Goerlitz, my second grade teacher, I might still be “Blind as a Bat,” never having finished grade school. So after that particular parent-teacher conference, I was off to the optometrist and my life changed forever.

Not only was it difficult dealing with the last name of Strange, (Yes, I heard all those tired old jokes about “That’s a strange name.”) but I also had to deal with insults about wearing glasses. The most frequent jabs came from the other children and included unkind descriptions like “Coke bottles” or “Four eyes” and even “Mister Magoo.” So after years of that particular brand of verbal abuse, popularly referred today as bullying, I set out to win the National Spelling Bee Championship, and I made a deal with Mother. “If I win the Plaza Park Spelling Bee Championship, can I get contact lenses?”

I don’t remember how long it took her to respond, but I clearly remember the answer-“Yes, if you win the Plaza Park Spelling Bee, you can get contacts.”

‘Watch out my fellow students,’ I was going to win that contest and get my contacts never to be referred to as “Four eyes” again.

After weeks and weeks of practice, and a razor sharp focus on the prize-I was ready. The students who competed in the school contest had to win the homeroom contest first. That was a snap. I sailed through the proffered words, winning easily. Despite the venue, I looked forward to the school-wide competition. This contest was held in front of the entire school, in the gymnasium, in front of a microphone. It was a game changer, but I was ready for the challenge.

I carefully reviewed my competition. Ann Carpenter was at the top of the list. Smart, cute, no glasses, daughter of a minister-I was certain she was the sentimental favorite and held the audience’s favor. But, “Four eyes” was prepared and ready to take the stage; I wasn’t the least bit intimidated by cute, smart or religious favor.

One by one, each student, walked towards the microphone and waited for the word. And, one by one, the student was eliminated. At the end of the contest, as I predicted earlier, there were only two of us left standing on the gymnasium floor-Ann Carpenter and me. Two, twelve-year old girls who had known each other since second grade. Two girls who had played together, studied together, and probably fought together. Guilt set in and thoughts of uncertainty enveloped my word-riddled brain. Ann was probably smarter than me, I thought. ‘Her father was a good man-not that mine wasn’t-but he was a minister, by God! I barely went to Sunday School. I was already a cheerleader. Did I really need to be the Plaza Park Spelling Bee Champion, too?’

‘Maybe Ann deserved it more. There was always next year.’ My ruminations continued as I watched Ann walk toward the microphone. The judge spoke, Ann paused, and slowly recited the letters. I-N-C-O-R-R-E-C-T-L-Y. She spelled her last word incorrectly, and in a split second, I knew that all I had to do was step up to that microphone and spell that word exactly as I had done dozens of times before to Mother, to Daddy, to Sissy or to anyone who would listen.

The bell rang immediately upon Ann’s recitation of the incorrect spelling, and the back of her shoulders slumped slightly with the realization that her journey was over.

I took a deep breath. I walked to the microphone and waited for the judge to present this same word to me. I closed my eyes, envisioned the word in my mind, took another deep breath, repeated the word, paused slightly and spelled it slowly and correctly, knowing that I had just become Plaza Park’s Spelling Bee Champion. I heard the roar and applause of the crowd and turned around to meet the gracious congratulations of Ann Carpenter, my worthiest of opponents.

The principal of the school walked over, shook my hand and bent down to congratulate me. I drew close to his ear amidst the cacophonous sounds of the crowd and asked, “Can I call my Mother?”

As the crowd dispersed and the students made their way back to their classrooms, I followed the principal to his office. He closed the door and gestured toward the phone. I picked up the black handle of the phone from its cradle and nervously dialed my number.

“Hello,” the familiar voiced answered.

“Mommy,” I nervously responded using the endearment I had abandoned in seventh grade, “I just won the Spelling Bee Championship. Can you make an appointment for me so I can get my contacts?” I asked tremulously, as tears rolled down my cheeks.

“Yes,” was the simple answer. My carrot delivered.


I made it to the Vanderburgh County Spelling Bee Championship, but in the second round, I carelessly misspelled the word medicine. M-E-D-I-S-I-N-E. Ding! I didn’t even realize that I had misspelled the word until the judge asked me to leave the stage. I was mortified, embarrassed and sorely disappointed. The irony is that I have spent most of my career in healthcare, surrounded by physicians, nurses, therapists and others who take care of the needs of the injured, sick and dying. I do know how to spell the word medicine, and sometimes I even wear my glasses to work instead of my contacts. But, no one calls me “Four eyes” anymore, and most everyone knows I am a pretty, damn good speller.

Congratulations to Arvind Mahankali who won the 2013 Scripps National Spelling Bee Championship with the word knaidel. I really liked your glasses! Your fellow myopic speller, Sassy Strange.