Thursday, April 10, 2008

Confessions of an Ex-Spelling Bee Champ

Elizabeth Zelvin

Funny thing: I remembered the title of Alix Kates Schulman’s seminal feminist book about having been a prom queen as Confessions, not Memoirs, though when that title drew a blank on Amazon, I googled her and found that I was wrong. In American culture, we have a peculiarly ambivalent attitude about being good at something. We adore those with talents and accomplishments, but we expect them to disavow at least some of the pride and pleasure they may feel in their success.

I wish I could say I went through the half century between when I first claimed I wanted to be a writer and getting an offer for my first novel oblivious to what other people thought. But I fall somewhere along that vast continuum between saints filled with spiritual humility and narcissists who are certain they’re the Great I Am. Confession Number One: I care what people think. I hated being an unpublished writer perhaps less because it made me doubt myself than because I feared that others would conclude my writing wasn’t good enough.

I learned many valuable life lessons from my mother, an energetic high achiever who went to law school in 1921 and got a doctorate at the age of 69. But she never taught me how to fail. My mother faced the world with confidence, no matter what, because she could always say, “I am a lawyer.” Yet she didn’t practice law successfully. Like most of the handful of women lawyers of her generation, she had to find a niche on the sidelines, in her case writing and editing legal books. But so powerful was the illusion created by her sense of her own identity that she was always “my mother the lawyer” to me.

My father, a lawyer too, was one of those crossword puzzle demons who did the Sunday New York Times puzzle in ink every week. When I asked what something meant, he would say, “Look it up.” In those days, this meant not a quick romp through Google but dusting off the Webster’s Unabridged or worse, plodding down the wooden stairs to the cold basement to consult the encyclopedia. We had a full set of the Encyclopedia Americana, though in adult life I acquired a set of the 1962 Britannica and clung to it long past its usefulness. We were all natural spellers who played fierce family games of Scrabble when it first came out. I still remember the sense of triumph I felt—I must have been nine or ten—when I gave the correct spelling of “exhilarated” after my mother insisted that middle “a” was an “i” and my dad thought it was an “e.” We settled the argument by looking it up, and I felt—exhilarated.

At my junior high in Queens, we were invited to participate in the National Spelling Bee. It wasn’t televised in those days, but it was still a big deal, especially as it was sponsored by Scripps-Howard newspapers and therefore got good media coverage. It’s still the Scripps National Spelling Bee, and word lists going back to 1950, five years before I competed in it in seventh grade, are still in existence.

I had never had a significant failure in those days. I got high grades on tests and was praised by teachers, and I did well enough in sports to please my intellectual family. I easily won the seventh grade spelling bee and then the whole school’s, competing against older kids in the eighth and ninth grades. I remember studying long lists of abstruse words with more pleasure than anxiety. It was no big deal: if I’d seen it, I could spell it. I instinctively fell into the pattern of spelling with pauses between syllables to break each word down into manageable parts.

I remember my classmates—a group of bright and talented kids who went through junior high together as “the SP orchestra class"—breaking into spontaneous applause as I returned to the classroom after winning the schoolwide bee. It had been announced on the PA system. They did the same when I won the competition for the whole school district. I recently found the place in my adolescent diary where I’d written excitedly: I WON THE DISTRICT SPELLING BEE!!! Confession Number Two: I was proud of my achievement. Why shouldn’t I be?

Then came the New York citywide spelling bee. Reader, I lost it. I fell afoul of not one of the difficult words I’d studied but a simple one I’d never heard before: “intermittent.” I got that second “e” right, but I failed to double the “t,” and that was it. No trip to Washington DC to compete in the national finals against kids from all over the country. And no applause when I slunk back into the classroom that afternoon.

I never misspelled “intermittent” again. In fact, for many years I assured people that I hadn’t misspelled a word since 1955. It’s still true if you don’t count a neurological glitch I’ve developed recently: a twist between brain and fingers on the keyboard that makes me type the wrong homonym (eg “there” for “their” or “they’re,” “too” for “two” or “to”) or even a similar word (eg “residence” for “restaurant”).

And for many years, going through the vicissitudes of life, I didn’t get that applause that rewards success, that joy of winning that our culture so treasures—until now. Yep, this is about my Agatha nomination for Best Short Story for “Death Will Clean Your Closet.” This time, the outcome of the final round won’t depend what I do at Malice Domestic, where the winner is selected. The challenge is in the competition--two proven mystery stars and a friend--and the personal tastes of the voters. There's no way to predict if I'll win. But the nomination feels every bit as good as winning the district spelling bee. And this time, that may be win enough for me.


Sheila Connolly said...

So you've got that homonym thing too? I wonder if it has a name.

I've decided at this advanced age (only a few years younger than you, Liz) to try out for Jeopardy. I figure these years of struggling to get published have prepared me for rejection. I'm not quite as sure about the spectacle of public stupidity, though.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

If not now, when? Go for it, Sheila!

Julie said...

Oh, the agony of the spelling bee! I could spell any word in practice sessions, but put me on a stage in front of an audience and I couldn't even spell my name!

Loved "Death Will Clean Your Closet," Liz! Good luck!