Sunday, August 28, 2005

How Do You Spell "Rip-Off"?

***Find the spelling error in this post and win a free coffee***

A lot of people dislike me because I am one of those people. You know, the kind that constantly corrects people on their grammar and spelling. Many people think that this is a result of arrogance or an attempt to prove some sort of intellectual superiority. But it's not. It's the result of a bitter episode in my young life.

When I was in 8th grade, I was a very very good speller. Not quite as good as Rebecca Sealfont or one of the other wunderkinder that you see at the Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee on ESPN8, The Ocho. Not quite, but I was very good for my age group. And I was clearly - CLEARLY - the best speller in my 8th grade class.

There was only one person who was even close. He name was Mike Albany (not his real name but, hint-hint, you could probably figure his real last name out with only 49 more guesses). Mike was a real prick, even back in 8th grade. He was an arrogant kid who considered himself intellectually superior to all others. He was especially unkind to me, constantly mocking me for one reason or another. I was his own personal whipping boy. It's as if I were Daniel-San and he was Johnny, if that draws the parallel (except without all of that karate).

But boy was he smart. He was definitely the smartest kid in the class. And he knew it. I am certainly no genius today, but I think I was borderline mentally incompetent in 8th grade. Common sense was completely out of my realm, and while my grades weren't bad, they sure weren't good. So the fact that I was even dumber back then than I am now compounded my problem.

I played soccer, and was not very good at that either. Mike Albany played hockey and was generally regarded as an outstanding player, at least by the other guys in my class who were in the know. This didn't help. But overall, Mike was a very sorry, very unhappy person. I think that his father probably pushed him pretty hard (dad always seemed like a prick too), and this made him ultra-competitive. And maybe insecure?

When it came to spelling, though, he and I were neck-and-neck. He could claim no superiority over me in this particular arena. We took the weekly spelling tests, and each week I either bested him or tied him. In fact, in 8th grade I got 100% on every single spelling test, never missing one word. I know for a fact that he did not accomplish this same feat, seeing several 90s, and even a couple 80s on his tests.

I never gloated this fact, of course, because it's spelling for chrissakes, not something important like health class or something. It's not like I was gonna say, "Hey Mike, how'd ya do on that spelling test? Oh, 90, huh? Hmmm... not bad, but it's not 100, is it? IS IT?! BOO-YAA!" I would have been an even bigger dick than him if I tried pulling that move.

My spelling acumen was further illuminated by my performance in the 7th and 8th combined grade spelling bee, open to all 7th and 8th graders in my school. Both grades got up on stage and spelled and spelled and spelled, with the incorrect spellers taking an early seat. I did very well in this spelling bee. In fact, I was one of the last three standing, and the only one left from my 8th grade class. (Two 7th grade girls had inexplicably gotten past my entire class.) Mike Albany had long since been eliminated several rounds prior.

The winner of this spelling bee would go on to represent the school in the district spelling bee or some such thing. And the person who finished second would be the backup, in case the winner could not make it. Truthfully, I did not want to win my school's spelling bee for this reason. And I'm not trying to be David Brent here; I really didn't want to win. It was fun, somewhat thrilling, to breeze through the spelling bee for my school alone, but I would have been terrified trying to compete on a larger stage with competition from other, larger schools. So at this point, I had felt that I made a nice showing, beating everyone in my 8th grade class, and if I lost, so be it. I never would have "thrown" the bee, of course, or taken a dive. Never. But if I lost fair and square, I wouldn't have been heartbroken.

Here's where it got interesting. (It's about time, eh?)

Near the end of the bee, I went up to the podium for what turned out to be my final at-bat. The word they gave me was "opindent."


I have never before, nor since, heard or read this word. My teacher announced it, and I went completely blank. I asked for a definition, and I don't even remember it. I had absolutely no clue what this word was.

Was this a conspiracy? I'm not sure. I attempted spelling the word, and failed. I think I spelled it with an "A" or something. (To this day, these events are a complete haze.) But that was that. I walked off the stage, into the provincial crowd of fellow also-rans, and my disappointment and bewilderment were tempered by a small pang of relief for being spared another couple weeks of nervousness, which I already had in abundance in that awkward era of my life.

The months go on, and I forgot about it. My mind wandered to other things, like girls I would never date and preparing to go to a high school I would surely hate. The whole spelling thing never really entered my mind again. Not until graduation night.

My 8th Grade graduation ends up being a happy/sad event as all graduations are. There is a mass at our church, then a banquet afterward to which all the families are invited. All the kids are dressed up in suits and dresses, and we all look unusually grown up. The night goes fine, even though my family of 6 is seated further back than anyone, and sort of separated from the rest of my class's families. (This separation complex has been an ongoing theme in my life, but that's another topic entirely.)

So okay, toward the end of the evening, it's time for the 8th grade superlatives. The teachers had gotten together and decided which students excelled the best at each subject, called each student to the podium, and gave each one a plaque. They go through all the subjects, like Social Studies, Math, Science, etc., all of which I was terrible at, so I just sat there with no pressure, like Vin Diesel at the Oscars. But English was coming up.

I knew I wasn't the best English student, but I thought that maybe, deep down, I had a chance to win this award. I had been given high praise for my writing in that class, even having some of my papers read aloud, and I thought maybe this would propel me to an unlikely upset in this category. I felt my temperature rise ever so slightly.

My teacher says, "For excellence in English, we give the award to Mike Albany." Aw shucks. No big surprise, I guess. Mike goes up to accept his plaque to polite applause. But once he is at the podium, something happens that I likely remember for the rest of my life.

My teacher, forever tainted after this moment in my mind, keeps Mike Albany at the podium and makes the following pronouncement:

"As long as he's up here, I think it's obvious that Mike was also our best student in the subject of spelling."

I quite literally felt as if I had been punched in the stomach. I could not breathe. Even today, thinking about it, I have a small twinge of anger and hurt over it, as pathetic as that sounds. I hadn't known that they would give out a separate award for spelling, but if I had, I would have assumed that the award should have gone to me. Look at the results? Who had the best overall spelling score in the class? Who finished above everyone else in the 8th grade in the bee? Whose spelling skills in papers were so hallowed that they were often cited for excellence in writing?

I don't think it's an overstatement to say that this event tarnished the entire night beyond repair, and even much of the year itself. I felt a profound sense of injustice. You know when you go to a bar -- the bar you always go to -- and you're waiting for five minutes to get a drink? But you can't catch the bartender's eye? And then someone else strolls into the bar and gets served immediately? Imagine that feeling times a thousand, compounded with the person who just walked in being your most hated rival. Oh, and he took the last beer in the place, the one you wanted.

It wasn't just that he got the award, because he was close to me (not better than, but close to). But to say it was "obvious" that he was the superior speller? That was the thing that sent me over the edge. There was nothing "obvious" about this. If anything, this was an upset. This was Art Carney defeating Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Albert Finney and Jack Nicholson at the 1974 Oscars. Never had there been a more dominant, more legendary performance of spelling in the history of St John of Rochester Parochial School. Not only should I have been given a plaque, but a plaque bearing my name should have been put in the trophy case heralding my achievement. Surely this would not only have inspired the new students coming in to aspire to a higher level of excellence, but it would have put the school on the map! (It's no coincidence that the school closed it's 7th and 8th grades only two years later. Karma is a lass with a sense of humor.)

Yet somewhere that son of a bitch Mike Albany has my plaque.

So next time you talk to me and I correct your grammar, or tell you that it should be "whom" instead of "who," please know that it's not to try to make myself feel superior, and not to make you feel stupid. It's because, just in case my 8th grade English teacher should happen to be walking by, she will know what a collossal mistake she made. And she will weep for her short-sightedness.


donna said...

I want my coffee - "He name was Mike..." His name, you mean.

Kathie said...

Make mine a grande - colossal has one "l".

Lietenant Laughing Stock said...

Yes, it's amazing how much moronic teachers can mess up stuff like this.

I agree with everything you said except the part where you said "as important as health class" or whatever. I totally disagree with that. Spelling, even words you probably will never use or even hear, is much more important that that class of trash.

Sti K said...

I agree. If you have 2 jings, you can't possibly expect to mate with a kangaroo... perhaps a triangle would be the better choice!
Keep up the great writings!

Peter J said...

I kan't spell, but I do know a word-of-the-day which would nicely compliment this posting: orthography.

Just a thought...