Thursday, February 14, 2008

Orthography and me

It's the early 1960s. I'm maybe 6 or 7 years old, and I walk into the kitchen and find that my mother is listening to the radio.

"It's the spelling bee," she says.

I am a very literal-minded little kid; when I first heard of the song "I Only Have Eyes for You," I pictured a doctor in a hospital ward, telling the patients that there weren't enough eyes to go around. (I am a very literal-minded, very weird little kid.)

I remember thinking that it is interesting that a bee can spell, but not unlikely, given my acquaintance with cartoon animals who can do lots more than talk and who can even get shot in the face without being killed, although they always seem to wind up with a nominal amount of gunpowder on their face.

Eventually I figure out what is really going on: A bunch of kids are spelling words on the radio as a kind of game.

Flash forward to 1968. I'm on a stage in the auditorium of a downtown high school, competing in the very same spelling bee, sponsored by the local newspaper company. Earlier in the day, the other kids and I took the written test, after which we were treated to a Henry Aldrich movie that featured Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer in a small role. (I sometimes can't remember where I put the TV remote, but somehow I remember that.)

After a luncheon across the street at a motel that later became a place that treated alcoholics and people with mental problems, and that later went belly-up, the finalists, including me, were announced and were marched back across the street.

And now we're all live on the radio. I still remember the engineer and the announcers, and the judges, including the head of the Catholic schools. (He's still around, a bishop now.)

One girl misspells "derringer," and after doing so she leaves the stage and she and her parents leave the building. Years later I will work with her on my college's newspaper and will be stupid enough to bring this up. Especially stupid, considering she is very nice-looking. As you and everyone else with a brain out there have guessed by now, her misfired "derringer" is not a happy memory for her, and although she is polite about it, I might as well have a nominal amount of gunpowder on my face, and rightly so.

I finish eighth that afternoon, going out on "divertissement" -- a French word given to a kid who hasn't taken French yet.

Later that year, I am invited to the state fair spelling bee. Robert Earle, the guy who replaced Allen Ludden on GE's "College Bowl," has been hired as the pronouncer. But he has canceled so he can tape a pilot for another game show. His replacement is a woman who is not pleasant to deal with; if you miss a word, she doesn't let you walk away -- you have to stand there with egg on your face while she judgmentally spells it correctly for you.

When it comes time for me to spell my first word, "accurate," I draw a blank in the middle of it while my brain takes a round trip to Chicago. After it returns, I add an extra "r" and get the bell, finishing dead last, with an entire omelet, plus two frittatas, on my face.

Worse yet, I don't get to leave the auditorium, much less the building. I have to keep sitting in front with the others for the entire bee.

Flash forward to last Saturday. It's about 40 years after that first bee, and I am now a judge, by dint of having worked for the local newspaper company for many years. I've been serving as a judge for about six years, and the bee is now on TV instead of the radio. It's still live, though. Boy, is it live.

I suppose one could argue that my generation was made of sterner stuff; the written test and the final spelldown are now on separate Saturdays. But these kids are more sophisticated; I suspect most of them have seen the national bee on TV, or the documentary "Spellbound," or another film, "Akeelah and the Bee," or all of the above. They're more likely to ask for other pronunciations. (And who knew there were so many kinds of schwas?)

This year the bee, which is supposed to be 90 minutes, runs more than two hours straight; it's on the local PBS station, so there are no breaks until we get a winner. For me, that means a lot of sitting and concentrating under very hot lights. And a lot of straining to hear some of the kids; though they're a few feet away, because of the audio engineer's skills, they're more audible to the folks at home than they are to me, except when my earpiece is working -- which it doesn't for a time; I suspect I've screwed it up somehow.

And this year, for the first time, I'm the one who hits the bell. I hate doing it at first, but I get used to it; I suppose the same thing happens to hired killers.

Aside from its length, this bee is especially dramatic because there are a couple of rounds where all the kids misspell, meaning they all have to come back. Never seen that before. The winner is the same kid who won last year, and he seems just as thrilled.

Soon it's all over; the bright lights are turned off, the unabridged dictionary is closed, and as I uncreak my knees (funny how arthritis didn't bother me 40 years ago), I watch the parents coming forward to chat with the pronouncer and the representative from the paper, and I am happy to notice that none of the parents seem to be heading my way, bearing lighted torches.

I wonder how the 13-year-old Mark Murphy would have reacted that day at the high school -- or better yet, at the state fair -- if someone had told him that four decades later he'd be a spelling bee judge. I would like to think that he would immediately have undertaken a comprehensive study of schwas, but having known this kid for more than 50 years, I wouldn't have bet the rent on it.

And I'm still looking forward to Mr. Earle's new game show.


Pawlie Kokonuts said...

A brilliant, brilliant post. I loved every word of it, including the new (for me) word "pronouncer." What a great slice of life! Thanks.

Julie Hyzy said...

Loved this, Mark. Really great. My losing word was "proffered" and I, too, went blank and added an extra "r."

Thanks for bringing all that back. It's *almost* a fond memory these days ;-)

Great post.

Kile Smith said...

Candidate killed me in 6th grade, "canditate" is what I coughed up. Cannot believe I fumbled, to this day cannot believe it. Thanks for this memory, Mark! I love your writing, esp. the hired killer part. Brilliant!