Orthographically Challenged

Four days after the Meltdown, and I’m back at the JFK cafeteria, this time for the Northampton Education Foundation Adult Spelling Bee.

I can’t spell.

That’s an exaggeration. I probably spell better than most people, but I don’t have the kind of memory that allows me to know instantly how to spell difficult words. I also never seemed to learn the rules of spelling: when letters are doubled, when to use “us” vs. “ous,” why “i” sometimes comes after “e” even without that pesky “c.” Friends generally assume I’m a good speller because I’m a writer and editor. They assume wrong. While I can usually tell if a word is spelled incorrectly (especially when a red line appears under it), I often can’t tell what would make it right.

The Bee is the biggest fundraiser for the Northampton Education Foundation, which provides grants to the public schools to add creative programs to their curriculum. It has become one of THE events of the year in Northampton. Local organizations and businesses sponsor teams at a cost of $250, which brings in the money. During the competition, teams of three compete in heats, or “swarms.” They write the words on dry erase boards. If they had to stand in front of a microphone, I’m pretty sure no one would compete. “Bee” puns abound. A team of breast surgeons was The Bee Cups; a team sponsored by a movie theater was The Bee Movies. Costumes are also encouraged. Every year, my veterinarian and her family go all out. This year they were The Bee Party, with her husband in full (and impressive) Sarah Palin drag. Their kids dressed as moose and ran across the stage while “Sarah” shot them with a Nerf gun.

I’ve attended for years, but never planned to spell (see: lack of talent, above). But the night before the event, the president of NEF asked if I’d form a team to represent a last-minute sponsor. Who could say no to that? Caught up in the moment, I managed to recruit (via Facebook) two very smart friends, who also happen to be neighbors. We dubbed ourselves The Ward 3 Bee, as we all live in Ward 3. (Full disclosure: We really live in Ward 3A, not Ward 3B. Call it poetic license. Second full disclosure: I can’t spell license.) Later we came up with the name Jew-Jew-Bees (since we all are), but it was too late. Maybe next year.

While I can’t spell, I sure can recruit a team. Both of my teammates are extremely well read and well educated. Naomi is a writer and copy editor with, as far as I can tell, a photographic memory of how words are spelled. Shoshana is a nurse, among other cool things, and therefore had the medical terms well in hand. I discovered that Naomi knew how to spell chthonic, the word that stumped every team in the semi-final swarm last year. RINGER! (Naomi has a delightful blog. Go read it, but not until you’re done here).

The Bee was hopping. It seemed like everyone in town was packed into the cafeteria, and the event was being simulcast live on the radio and recorded for local access TV. We were in the seventh swarm, which gave me plenty of time to practice and build to a slow panic.

I did well following along with the other teams, correctly spelling abuzz and knucklehead, but then misspelled hallucinogen due to my very tame teenage years. I was also spot-on with fiery, mnemonic, gaufrette, and kirsch (Jews know kirsch), but bombed out on coppice, myrmecology, and miscible.

We took the stage with 5 other teams, and the nerves quieted a little. It helped to watch Ted, leaning against the stage with a big grin on his face. Thanks to the brain trust I formed, we sailed through vassal, commissary, dilettante, gnu, and pulchritudinous. Our first stumble was redivivus, but we still had one more chance. Next up: antimacassar (a favorite word—taught to me by my father), facetious, and inveigle. I’m pretty certain I would have only spelled half of these on my own. I had no idea how the other teams were doing until I realized that there were only two teams left—our team and the ADH Bees (who were focusing far better than their team name suggested they would). Then they pulled out the German: zeitgeber. I knew zeit but was otherwise unhelpful. Naomi and Shoshana vacillated between zeitgeber and zeitgaber. They went with the latter, and Shoshana threw an umlat over the “a,” for which we should have received extra credit. The ADH Bees spelled zeitgeber wrong as well, but it was their first error. We lost, but we went down swinging. (NB: I take great satisfaction in the fact that spellcheck doesn’t know what to do with redivivus or zeitgeber.)

In the end, The Bee Party won, correctly spelling platyrrhine. Fittingly, the vets took it with a zoological term.

Sometime between now and next year, I plan to learn Latin and German, go to Med School (or nursing or vet school), and read more Victorian literature.

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6 Responses to Orthographically Challenged

  1. Naomi says:

    One more correction (in addition to the zeitgeiber/zeitgaber debate): Shosh was definitely the best speller on that team. Reading your flattering words here, one might not walk away with that impression, but yes.

  2. Margaret Miller says:

    I was an English major and consider myself a good speller but I would have been LOST on zietgeber.

  3. I’m just impressed that you said yes to the dang thing in the first place!

  4. Susan Rosen says:

    As an NEF board member (and, full disclosure, one of the spelling bee word finders) I love how you captured the spirit of the event! And thanks for all the work you do for NEF.

  5. Pingback: Customers are Friends, and Friends are Customers | life in the little city

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