When last we left our intrepid sixth-grade speller, he had landed among the 14 qualifiers for The Repository Regional Spelling Bee. Judging from the picture in the newspaper’s April 3 bee preview section, he was as shocked as anyone else by this turn of events:
A few things jump out at me from the full page Repository bee preview:
- 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. I still hear her work several times a week on WKSU. 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.)
The Thirty-Seventh Regional Grand Final Spelling Bee sponsored by The Repository was thirty years ago today, at 1:30 p.m., in the auditorium of the former GlenOak High School East Campus. 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.
This letter is 30 years old today:
I had Bee Fever, man. And the only prescription? More Bee.
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.
Over the Christmas / New Year’s holidays, inspired in part by Alison Haislip’s AliMinus20 Twitter feed , I started thinking back to thirty years ago: 1983.
The original Star Wars trilogy concluded that year. So did M*A*S*H. Jaws 3-D and A Christmas Story both came out. I wasn’t really into listening to music yet, but that year saw the release of “99 Luftballoons”, “It’s a Mistake”, and “Every Breath You Take,” all of which I eventually owned on cassette, either as part of the entire purchased album or recorded off MTV using a boombox placed in front of the family room television.
I’m pretty sure sixth grade was the year I finally made it all the way through reading The Lord of the Rings. And in November 1983, I became a teenager.
Point is, it seemed like it’d be a fun year to revisit through pictures and memories and whatever else I can dig up. And as Doc Brown says, 30 years is a nice round number for time traveling.
My plan is to try and unpack these memories over the course of this calendar year, so for starters, here’s about what I looked like three decades back:
When the year began, I was 12 years old and in my first year – sixth grade – at Lake Middle School. This picture is the closest I can get to January of ’83 – it’s actually from late December 1982, and we’re visiting my aunt and uncle in western New York over Christmas break. I’ve used this one because the next pictures of me in our family photo albums don’t show up until March. (Those Capsela kits were awfully freaking cool, by the way.)
Lack of personal photo documentation aside, 1983 did get off to an interesting start: The Lake Local Schools teachers’ union went on strike on January 3 – our first scheduled day back at school following the Christmas break.
My parents kept me home – whether out of support for the teachers, or due to a lack of available busing (this would be less of an issue as the strike continued), I’m not sure. But I remember thinking it was great having an extended winter vacation.
I’m not sure how long it took – a week, maybe? Week-and-a-half? – for mom to get it into her head that I should be doing school-type stuff instead of playing Atari and watching cartoons – but I know that the day she assigned me to write a book report was the last I stayed home. By that point, several of my friends had gone back to school, where substitutes teachers were filling in.
I don’t remember being nervous about walking past the teachers picketing in the parking lot or anything like that. I remember that it felt weird to be back, since a lot of the kids were still staying home, and since the substitutes were kind of more or less winging their lesson plans, which had little to do with whatever it was we’d been working on in December.
Looking through the Canton Repository archives to find out how long the strike lasted, I found this in the January 26th edition:
I remember that day: And yes, I seem to recall having the Fear of the Permanent Record being put into us as far as the penalties for participating in the walkout. There were adults stationed at the building exits, sitting at student desks which had been moved into the hallways for the occasion. In one of my classes, the teacher took attendance and, reaching a gap in the roll, asked if anyone had seen the absent student. “He excaped!” one of my classmates blurted out with vicarious glee.
I believe a couple of the older kids on our street – high schoolers – did participate in the walkout.
The strike ended on Feb. 15. Pictures in the newspaper archives showed the teachers wearing their “TOGETHER WE
CAN DID!” buttons, which I had forgotten about. The paper noted that 28 teachers had been arrested over the course of the strike. I have a vague memory of the whispered buzz about this side of things.
Unrelated notes from January and early February 1983:
- That’s Incredible anchored my Monday night prime-time viewing.
- Gas hit the $1 per gallon mark in Stark County on Feb. 11
- The Toy, Airplane II: The Sequel and The Dark Crystal were all still in movie theatres.
I haven’t decided yet if I’m running a marathon this year, but my brother Adam and I have already circled the inaugural Canton Marathon on the 2012 calendar.
The organizers published the routes (there’s a half-marathon and a 10-K, too) today. Here’s the full 26.2-miler:
The Canton Repository drove the route and created this video.
I’ve manually mapped the course at my favorite run-planning site, Gmaps Pedometer, including the last bit not included in that video and reflecting the Repository‘s statement that the marathon finish will be at the 40-yard line of Pro Football Hall of Fame Field in Fawcett Stadium, which is awfully neat. (Doesn’t specify which 40-yard line – I guessed.)
In 2009, when I ran my first (and only) marathon, I deliberately avoided training on the course because I wanted it to remain unfamiliar territory. It helped that the Towpath is an hour’s drive from my house. And where that course was all wilderness and long stretches, this one is a winding path over streets I’ve been traveling most of my life, which – even though I’ve done this once – seems to present a fair mental challenge, because I’m watching that video and going “Damn, that’s a long way.”
And yet I’m looking forward to it, so clearly, something’s wrong with me.