A high school classmate of mine who works in history found this this week:
This is from the Wisconsin State Journal 40 years ago Wednesday. (Pause while I wipe the tears from my eyes and loudly blow my nose over The March Of Time!)
The previous Saturday, April 30, 1977, I won the Madison City Spelling Bee in my third attempt. In those days, at least in Madison, if you won your elementary- or middle-school spelling bee you advanced to the city spelling bee. I won my spelling bees at Kennedy Elementary School in fourth and fifth grade, but obviously failed to win at the city level until I won my first Schenk (now Whitehorse) Middle School spelling bee in 1977.
Spelling bees were the first kind of competition in which I did reasonably well. Spelling bees are analogous to competing in a non-relay track event or swimming race, in that your success is based on what you do in comparison to what others do. Since I sucked (and still do) at athletics, and never was a very good musician, this was my thing for five years growing up.
Spelling today is, if not a dying art, then a seriously ill art, given creative spellings in the business world (“Kwik Trip”), spellcheck in word processing applications (though spellcheck doesn’t pick up homophones, a correctly spelled incorrect word), and abbreviations in social media. (IMHO. SMH. BTT.)
The 1977 bee was, for me, somewhat of a white-knuckle experience toward the end, even though I was a grizzled veteran of spelling bees by then. Similar to team sports, winning a spelling bee requires some luck in getting words you can spell (or at least correctly guess) and your competitors getting words they could not spell. My first city spelling bee in fourth grade was a two-and-done; the second word I got was “trellis” (a framewhich I had never heard of, and that ended that. One year later, I got up near the top 10, but lost on “raiment” (clothing). In my fourth city spelling bee, in seventh grade, I finished 13th on “vacillate” (to waver in mind or opinion), another word I had never heard of. (I studied, but I guess I didn’t get down toward the end of the dictionary. As it was, I think I learned more words by reading them than being told to spell words in a dictionary.)
The word “thespian” probably doesn’t show up often in a sixth-grader’s vocabulary, so when I heard it it sounded to me like, well, a gay actress, but I figured out it ended with “=pian” and not “-bian” and got it right. Shortly thereafter the runner-up missed her word, I spelled it correctly, and then I got “vassal” (according to Dictionary.com “ another word not found in a sixth-grade vocabulary. (In those days, again with only one person advancing to the next level, if speller A missed his or her word, speller B had to spell that word correctly and then another word.) The first four letters were easy enough, but not the last two — “-al,” “-il” or “le”?
To quote the ancient knight in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” I chose … wisely. I got to bring home a traveling trophy that was half as tall as I was, and got on the front page of the Wisconsin State Journal, along with a story in the Monona Community Herald (which I would end up working for, but you knew that).
A week later, I departed the state spelling bee after spelling “bagatelle” (something of little value or importance), again not a word in a sixth-grader’s vocabulary, correctly. The first eight letters seemed obvious, but was there a silent E at the end? I got to the last L, stopped, heard no reaction, and added the E. A woman sitting in the front row protested, and the judges decided that I meant “bagatell” instead of “bagatelle.”
Two years later, as longtime readers know …
… I returned to state as the city bee winner.
(Note, by the way, how fashions changed between 1977 and 1979. Plaid pants gave way to polyester disco shirts and pants, and though I hadn’t ditched the glasses yet, there was a lot more hair, though not as much as in the previous year.)
The story quotes me as saying that “declaration” and “drudgery” were two words I had a little difficulty with spelling. Truth be told, I really didn’t, other than to make sure I had the letters in the correct order. Winning the previous school bee made me 5-for-5 in winning school spelling bees, and apparently I was the first person to win two Madison spelling bees. (A girl in that 1979 bee became the first to win two consecutive city spelling bees. Interestingly, she was hearing-impaired.)
The state spelling bee the week afterward at my future high school went sort of like my first city spelling bee, a two-and-done, though on a word that, had I thought about it for a couple of seconds, I would have spelled correctly — “bailiff.” The night before I attended my middle school’s eighth-grade dessert dance, and sl0w-danced with five girls, three of whom I’d had crushes on at some point (along with perhaps half of the other girls in what would become the Class of 1983). So on Saturday afternoon my head was still back in Friday night. And that ended that, because there are no spelling bees in high school.
The bee format appears to have changed to where more than just the winner moves on. Wisconsin’s top three state-bee spellers advanced to the national bee. Advancing to the national bee appears to be now based on some sort of population formula, or perhaps number of organizations willing to sponsor a regional bee, given that Wisconsin had three national contestants, Iowa had two, and Illinois had 18. It’s kind of become like expanding the baseball playoffs from including only division winners to adding wild-cards, where, like the 1997 and 2003 Marlins, 2002 Angels, 2004 Red Sox, 2011 Cardinals and 2014 Giants, teams can win the World Series without winning their division. (Or the 2010 Packers, winners of Super Bowl XLV as the last NFC playoff team.) The state bee also had a rule, since rescinded, that if you won the state bee you couldn’t compete anymore. (From what I’ve read most national bee winners are not first-time national competitors, which makes sense.)
For those who haven’t moved on to something else by this point, you might be asking (other than why the hell did I write this) what I got out of the whole experience. (Other than embarrassment every time I misspell a word, though mistyping a word isn’t exactly the same thing as spelling it wrong.) It was the first experience in my life of being sort of locally famous, which as those who have achieved some fame know is a mixed blessing. With the exception of friends of mine (and you know who you are, Ruste), few of my classmates appeared to care much, though adults in my two schools did. (On my last day at Schenk, a teacher — not one I’d had for a class — actually thanked me for bringing positive recognition to the school. I didn’t know what to say.) Something similar happens now because my photo has been in publications I work for (and my face has shown up on TV), and it’s one of those strange experiences where more people know me than I know them.
Was it fun? Well … it was not like my UW Band experience or a successful athletic accomplishment (the latter certainly not based on personal experience, of course) in which your first thrill is the accomplishment and then you realize what a great experience you had along the way to that accomplishment. I certainly didn’t hate it (some people can spell well but don’t do well in bees because they get excessively nervous in competition), but I can’t say I have fond memories of, say, school spelling bees or traveling somewhere with my mother giving me words out of the dictionary to spell. The experience for me was just what it looked like: (1) walk up to microphone, (2) spell the word, (3) go back to your seat, (4) watch others spell correctly or not; lather, rinse, repeat. I remember the spelling bees where I won fondly (not that I think about them often), and the ones I didn’t win I don’t remember fondly. (Athletic competition is sald to provide more lessons in losses than in wins, in the sense that failures can teach more than successes. I’m not sure that translates to spelling bees — if you don’t know a word, you don’t know it — except that if you lose that could mean you needed to study more, or, in the case of the 1979 state bee, try focusing on what you’re supposed to be doing instead of something else.) Spelling wasn’t fun; winning was fun, and when I won, I was the only winner.
The experience also taught me that being smart (or, as the British put it, “clever”) isn’t really valued in our society. (Anyone who thinks this is a recent phenomenon due to the current president has not been paying attention well before now.) Part of it probably is that there are a lot of people who are threatened by someone who can do something better than that person can. Americans like to think of ourselves as a society striving for equality, but we also like to think of ourselves as a meritocracy, and the two concepts are somewhat at cross-purposes to each other. Part of it as well probably is because some smart people unintentionally make people feel inferior, or (particularly if they’re young) haven’t figured out interpersonal skills to not do that. (Some people, such as myself, like to claim that they don’t care what people think about them, but that’s not likely to be true.) Harry Truman famously said the world is run by C students, so intelligence does not necessarily translate to leadership skills; nor does it necessarily lead to sense or wisdom, as, well, whatever political debate you choose to cite proves.
Last year for the Scripps National Spelling Bee, Time magazine did an online where-are-they-now feature. One spelling bee champion became a spelling bee coach. None profiled did what I did, go into journalism, one of the few lines of work that actually appreciates spelling ability. (Or where you get nailed for lack of spelling ability. However, the standard in print journalism is to write at an eighth-grade level, and words in more advanced spelling bees are well past eighth grade.)
Not in the Time story was Joanne Lagatta of Clintonville, the first and only Wisconsinite to win the national bee. (On “inappetence,” lack of appetite, and “antipyretic,” a drug used to combat fever.) She is now a pediatric physician, certainly a better profession for the world than journalism, though I wonder if she can use both of those words in the same sentence, such as “She gave her patient an antipyretic in part because the fever had caused her patient inappetence for several days.” Of course, given the rare use of those words, most people probably wouldn’t know what she was talking about, similar to the sentence in the title of this blog.