It’s third grade, a Catholic school in Milwaukee. A spelling bee is occurring. Team A is lined up in the front of the room and Team B along the windows at the side.
“Broccoli. b … r … o … c … c … o … l … i. Broccoli”
“That is correct. Very good.”
“Yes!” I say, as I throw my arms in the air, jump a little, and my hair goes up and comes back down on the top of my head. The constant jumping up and down when my side correctly spells a word is taking a toll on my appearance: the hem of my neatly tucked in flannel shirt is becoming more and more visible. And I am perspiring. But I don’t care; we continue to spell most of the words correctly; it is close, but we are winning.
My team is B, in front of the frosted windows which separate the classroom from the cold and a lot of snow. We’re playing for the right to an outdoor recess and the competition is intense. It’s been a long, hard winter; recesses have been indoors, as there has been a great deal of snow and temperatures have been dangerously cold. Everyone is longing to go outside, even if all bundled up and just for a walk around the playground. The members of the team that wins this spelling bee will have an opportunity to do so before the members of the other team.
As kids miss their word, they have to sit down, open their spelling books, and write out each word in the six lessons covered by this spelling bee ten times. I notice that several of these students are sitting right in front of members of my team. And that it is likely that my teammates are able to review the spelling words in real time. And that it is even possible that a spelling book would be open to a lesson containing the word one of us is supposed to spell in the competition.
“Seasick. s … e … a … s … i … c … k. Seasick.”
I am struck sort of numb by this possibility; if this situation is actually benefiting anyone, it’s clearly my team, and I don’t think we should have this benefit. I doubt I can resist the temptation to look at the book if I have trouble with a word when my turn comes. Being a ‘goody-too-shoes’, I think I need to tell the teacher about this unfair advantage. Thinking about how grateful she will be, I get almost as excited about telling her about this as I do about our side spelling a word correctly.
In my excited fantasizing, I don’t hear my name.
“Walter? … Puzzled.”
I recover, “Puzzled. p … u … z … z … l … e … d. Sister, …” I want to tell her about the possible advantage my team has.
“You know the format, Walter. Say the word, spell the word, say the word again. You didn’t follow the format, so you missed, sit down.”
“But … ” I sputter.
Her glare would’ve frozen the Great Salt Lake. I sit.
As I stew in the juices of this plainly unjust expulsion from the competition, I realize something unsettling is happening to me. The rigid application of the rules ( I am no troublemaker; she knows she doesn’t have to rigidly apply the rules to keep me from making trouble. ) changes both my attitude and my feelings about my teacher. Not realizing I'm losing my innocence, I do slowly realize I will never completely trust either her or her authority again.
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