Monday, November 10, 2008

The Spelling Bee - Part II

(Click here for Part I of this fascinating drama).

So there I was at the regional spelling bee. It was held in a local high school's auditorium. The thirty or so participants were up on the wooden stage, seated in a semi-circle facing the audience, the moderator was seated on a podium at stage left, and the hard wooden chairs in the gallery were nearly half-filled with the proud parents, bored and restless siblings, and busily annoyed teachers of all the contestants. Plus my friends' mom and my friend.

The earlier disgusting roach incident aside (and I confess to nervously scanning the area around me to make sure there weren’t any of the despicable beasts in the area), this day was the highlight of my year so far! I was mildly embarrassed by my swollen and ugly eye, but it didn’t hurt any more, and I was certain I was going to win. I was just sure of it. After all, I had never encountered a word I couldn’t spell, including the popular "show-off" spelling words of the era, "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" and "antidisestablishmentarianism."

The bee began. When it was your turn, you got up and walked to the microphone at the center of the stage, waited for your word to be pronounced by the moderator, then stated the word, spelled the word, stated the word again, and waited for the judges' verdict: "That is correct" or "That is INcorrect."

If correct, you sat down again in your seat on the stage. If incorrect, you took the equivalent of the "Fear Factor Walk of Shame" -- exiting stage right with all eyes upon you, trying not to trip down the stairs that you couldn't see because you were crying, and sitting (sad and humiliated) in the audience with your disappointed teachers and parents and bored siblings. Of course, they didn't call it the Walk of Shame since Fear Factor hadn't been invented yet, but that's what it was like.

I thought they must be starting with the easy words and then working their way up to the hard words, because all the words seemed easy to me. But in an amazing display of ineptitude, several kids were eliminated in the first round -- and on easy-peasy words like "often," "callow," and "arrogant." I'm not proud of this, but I have to admit that I smiled inwardly each time someone else took the "Walk of Shame" -- one less person coming between me and that trophy!

After several rounds, the number of contestants was dwindling. I was one of about 6 kids left on the stage. I had not yet heard a word that I didn’t know how to spell. I was absolutely certain I was going to win! It was all so very exciting!!

And then ... the moderator asked me to spell ... what? ... Oh no! Confounded by that Southern accent! Was she asking me to spell the word "train"? ... or did she say "terrain"? It was hard to tell. I stood for a moment, looking (and feeling) confused.

I asked her to repeat the word. She did, slowly and carefully: "tuh-rain." That slow pronunciation didn't really help. It just solidified my confusion. Was she pronouncing the "t" so clearly because she thought I didn't know whether to spell "train" or "rain," or did she really mean "terrain"?

So, I asked for a definition of the word. Not that I needed a definition of either word, I just couldn't tell whether I was supposed to spell a word that meant "locomotive" or one that meant "land."

Of course, asking to repeat and to define words is a time-honored spelling-bee method of stalling for time when you aren't sure how to spell the word, and I'm sure that's what the judges thought I was doing when I asked for a repeat and then a definition.

The moderator defined the word: "a tract of land, especially as considered with reference to its natural features, military advantages, and so forth."**

I breathed a sigh of relief. Now I knew what to spell!

But I soon discovered that the moderator's Southern accent was not my only problem. You see, I had a Southern accent, too. And if you are using a proper Southern accent, vowels are dipthongs and most every syllable is pronounced as two syllables. So, for example, a long "a" has two syllables (and is pronounced first with the long a sound then the long e sound following it, and all sort of elided together, something like this: aay-yee). Also, the letter "I" is pronounced softly, almost like "ah" or "uh," but with two syllables to it and just the barest hint of an "i" sound.

So I proudly stated and then spelled the word, in my best southern accent:

"Tuh-ray-eene. Te-eee ... ee-eee ... ah-ur ... ah-ur ... aay-yee ...
aaa-aa(i) ... ee-yen. Tuh-ray-eene."

Near as I can figure, the judges thought I said "aaah," or "aa-uh" (a verbal filler used to stall for time) rather than "aaa-aa(i)" (the correct southern pronunciation of the vowel "i") when I stated that second-to-last letter. That is the only reason I can think of that they would have ruled that I spelled the word wrong. Which they did, immediately. Without even discussing it among themselves:

"INcorrect," came the verdict.

I was stunned. Flabbergasted. "Well then, how *is* the word spelled?!?" I asked. No answer, just an instruction to please sit down with the audience. This was not a Florida-Florida State football game. There was no video or tape recording, no "instant replay" or other challenge to the judges’ decision allowed or considered. I was out, a loser, a Walk-of-Shamer, and that was that. But I was certain I had spelled the word correctly! How could this beeeeee?!?

"How DO you spell tuh-ray-ene?" I asked my friend's mom, after I sat down and choked back my sobs enough to whisper the question.

Well, it’s spelled "T-E-R-R-A-I-N," said my friend's mom.

"But that’s what I said!" said I.

"No, you said 'T-E-R-R-A-N,'" said she.

"Noooooooo... I didn't...."

It was all too much to bear. Twice in one morning, my friend's mom was telling me I was wrong, when I was clearly right, and I had lost the spelling bee besides. I dissolved into a puddle of tears, complete with sniffles and sobs and my friend's mom whispering loudly at me to "stop that, you're being disruptive....." As you can see by the fact that I still recall this event vividly over 30 years later, it scarred me for life.


** The definition here is a paraphrase of what she said. This particular definition is courtesy of which of course didn't exist in the mid-'70s because Al Gore hadn't invented the internet yet.


Ms. Florida Transplant said...

That's hilarous!

That's the type of thing you'll still be bitter about when you're 80.

Green said...

That was a beautiful story ... for me to read, not for you to live through. I'm sorry accents screwed up your trophy.

GW said...

Oh, the pain! I could picture the whole thing, for you, m'am, have a gift for description and narrative. I found your blog today courtesy of your link in a comment on Brat's Bux blog. I am so glad I did!

LegalMist said...

Thanks, all. Glad you enjoyed the tale, and thanks for stopping by.

Johnny Yen said...

The cultural insensitivity was appalling!

Back about twenty years ago, there was a book on Southern English. I can't remember the exact name of the book, but I remember a couple of examples:

Tar- the rubber wheel on a car.
Terecktly- Right away; as in "I'll be there terecktly."

Fancy Schmancy said...

Oh, that is terrible!! They should have been able to understand your accent, as it was also theirs. Poor little girl.

Candy's daily Dandy said...

That is one of those WHY moments that never goes away. At the time I am sure you wanted to die! The crushing agony of the defeat that day probably had nothing to do with the fact that you grew up and became a successful lawyer who can SPELL:) You sure showed them.