The Thirty-Seventh Regional Grand Final Spelling Bee sponsored by The Repository was forty years ago today, at 1:30 p.m., in the auditorium of the former GlenOak High School East Campus.
I was there.
I was in sixth grade, and I had Bee Fever, man.
The year before, I had won the Lake Elementary fifth grade spelling bee, earning me a spot in the Lake Local bee and planting the seeds of my obsession with reaching the national bee in Washington, D.C. My teachers gave me a slim, stapled Official Spelling Bee Study Guide booklet, and every night after dinner, I’d spend time studying and having my mom and dad quiz me.
I remember the nighttime competition in the Lake Middle School cafeteria, feeling strange in this bigger, newer building, and going up against the older kids in grades six, seven and eight on their home turf. I seem to think I made it several rounds in, and that a place in the Stark County bee was within my grasp, since the school sent the top five or six kids, as I recall.
And then: agate.
Which I spelled “a-g-g-o-t,” since that’s exactly what it sounded like when the teacher read the word to me.
Agate had been in the study guide, but the booklet didn’t include pronunciations, and my parents and I, not being familiar with the word (to be fair, there were a lot of words in there we didn’t know), had thought it rhymed with “inflate.” I even checked the dictionary when I got home just to make sure it didn’t have an alternate pronunciation.
So: One year later. Late winter, 1983. I don’t remember how the sixth grade representatives to the Lake Middle School bee were chosen, and I don’t recall much of that bee other than it was in the cafeteria again – which was now my home turf – and how it felt when there were just the county qualifiers remaining, and I was sitting among them.
The Stark County Bee was Saturday, March 12, in one of the larger local school districts – I’m thinking it was Perry Local, down between Canton and Massillon, but it could have been in Jackson. And it was even weirder being on someone else’s school auditorium stage than it had been competing against the older kids the previous year.
There were 65 of us there. I don’t remember a single word I had to spell, but I also don’t remember worrying about any of them or feeling like I had to guess.
Regional qualifier, baby! One step from the Big Bee itself! I’m the skinny, thick-rimmed-glasses blur wearing the plaid shirt in the front row. And I’m holding a dictionary, because that’s what they always gave the winners at these bees. I think I had one from the Lake Middle School bee already.
Another girl from my school, who was a year older than me, also qualified.
As the letter up there indicates, I had a little less than a month to study for the regional at the old East Campus of GlenOak High School – directions to which were indicated with this wonderfully simplified map:
It was time to buckle down and keep on spelling.
A few things jump out at me from the full page Repository bee preview, which included this photo which pretty well captures my shock at having qualified for the thing:
- This is page 48. FORTY-EIGHT. Granted, it’s a Sunday paper, so it would have been big anyway, but seriously, kids, Sunday newspapers used to be fat.
- Another sign of changing times: Each speller’s profile includes their name, parents’ names, grade, school, and home address.
- The seven-paragraph story – “National title is goal of 44 spellers” – was written by M.L. Schultze, who went on to become the paper’s managing editor and oversaw a lot of impressive investigative projects. She was still freelancing occasionally for WKSU as of last summer. Her husband, also a former Repository editor, once interviewed me for a reporting job and later recommended me to the Independent over in Massillon.
- Recognizing that not everyone would be thrilled to find their middle-school selves on the internet, I chose not to scan the entire page. Laugh at me all you want, but know this: I am far from the only guy in this bunch sporting plastic-rimmed glasses and a not-quite-mop of barely-controlled hair.
- There is also a fair amount of hair feathering by both genders. I would not attempt the middle-parted ‘do for at least another year.
A few weeks had passed since the Stark County bee, and I had continued to study and obsess with as much focus as a sixth-grade nerd could muster when there was Atari to play and Dungeons & Dragons to learn. (One concrete memory: Dad reviewing my study guide with me, and making up a mnemonic device for remembering “abundance” which I have never forgotten. “Remember,” he said, sticking his butt out behind him, “it’s A BUN DANCE,” throwing his rear from side-to-side stressing each syllable – and cracking me the heck up. And now you need never wonder where my cheesy sense of humor comes from.)
So, now we’ve reached that regional finals day 40 years ago.
My parents went to their seats while I got a number to hang around my neck – I was speller number 30 – and stood nervously in line with the few dozen other spellers. And man, were those eighth-graders intimidating. They were the oldest kids allowed to compete, and they occupied 28 of the 44 spelling spots. (Although I will confess that middle school is where my “Smart Girls Are Hot” crush tendencies really took hold, and about two-thirds of the field here was female. So, there was that.)
Being thirty spellers in was a relief. Even in the first round, by that point a few kids had already bowed out, and the bee had settled into its rhythm.
I don’t remember what my first-round word was, but I can easily recall the stomach butterflies that took flight when it was my turn to step up to the microphone, and the sense of relief when The Pronouncer spoke my word … and I knew it.
For me, there was a very particular sense of hellish anticipation standing at the front of the stage, and a crazy relief that washed over me each time I was given a word that I knew. And though it came with its own little razor-edged “Okay-now-don’t-rush-and-don’t-screw-it-up” moment, and there was still that eternity to wait after completing the word to see whether the judges would tap their tiny, soul-crushing desktop bell signaling an error, hearing a word I knew was a glorious, near-tear-inducing thing. I was never one of those kids who could think through word origins and usage to make a highly-educated guess if I didn’t know a word. Either I knew it or I didn’t. I was either solid, or full-on guessing.
And then it was back to my seat to stare out into the darkness of the auditorium and look for mom and dad and wonder how many more rounds I could last.
Mom kept score in the bee program, noting in ballpoint pen the order and competitive round of each spellers’ exit.
Unlike the county bee, of course, with its 14 qualifiers, here at the regional, There Could Be (Bee? Nah. Too easy. – jb) Only One.
Fourteen kids dropped out in the first two rounds, and another eleven over the next two. After six rounds, there were less than a dozen of us left, and the competition had gotten tougher: The field only contracted by one in round seven.
Round Eight: “Balletomane.”
Well, dang. Never heard that one. Got the first half right, swung wildly at the second, and went down as the seventh-place finisher.
Four spots off the podium, as they say in the Olympics. (Instead of silver and bronze medals, second- and third-place regional finishers got, respectively, an electric typewriter and Webster’s Collegiate Thesaurus; and The World Almanac. And if I couldn’t go to D.C., I really wanted that electric typewriter.) And although I don’t think I realized it at the time, if mom’s scorecard is correct (there’s a little confusion in spots – looks like dad handled scoring at a few points), I was the last speller standing below seventh grade. Of the six kids who beat me, four were eighth-graders – the highest grade allowed. And the fourth-place finisher was a fellow Lake Middle Schooler, making ours the only school with two top-ten finishes. Go us.
But no prize for me, other than this:
I have never bought another dictionary, nor felt like I needed to.
And so ended my ’83 Bee Season. The kid who had won the previous year’s regional repeated his feat, went to D.C., and dropped out on a word I knew – either “kudzu” or “menorah.”
I competed three more seasons, accumulating something like five or six of the “younger reader”-type dictionaries awarded at the middle school and county level (one of which is still around), and two Repository-presented American Heritage dictionaries. I think the other one may be at my mom’s house, or belongs to one of my brothers, or was maybe given away during college.
My seventh-grade year I was an alternate for the regional, having slipped up on “taupe” at the county level. I’d never heard of it. In my final year of eligibility, I placed sixth at the regional, missing “restauratrice” because again, I had never heard the word, and also because it makes no freaking sense at all that there’s not an “n” in a word with “restaurant” at its core. I mean, really.
(Another of dad’s annual bee suggestions: “Hey, if you miss a word, instead of leaving the stage immediately, you should grab the mike and holler, “Anesthetist! A-N-E-S-T-H-E-T-I-S-T!” Because that was his job, and he knew I loved telling other kids that was his job, because it almost always led to, “He’s a what?” “An anesthetist. He puts people to sleep.” “What?!? Like you put a dog to sleep?!?”)
As a pretty skinny kid with state-mandated-minimum athletic talent and little real competitive sports drive beyond the backyard, I really enjoyed my bee seasons, despite what my mom may tell you about how much I complained about studying for them. I liked being good at spelling, and I liked that for a few weeks every year, it was “my thing,” the way some kids were talented in sports, or others built models or drew cartoons or solved Rubik’s Cubes.
Also, if there are any spelling errors in this entry, I made them on purpose. As a test.