SpellBy Wendy C. Ortiz
April 23, 2013
I won so many spelling bees in elementary school. Certificates with my name on them, little prizes of ice-cream scented erasers.
I loved spelling. It was ordered and rote and made sense to me even when it did not. Bough, ought, caught.
I was indignant when anyone else won. I felt spelling bees were my calling. I took the used workbooks home, the ones I’d completed week after week during the school year.
I transported the words to my grandmother’s house. I rolled out the chalkboard she gave me and we played school.
My grandmother who had a sixth grade education learned how to spell my vocabulary words, the words I learned in my second grade private school class, and she was an excellent pupil for her granddaughter.
Spelling was unlike math. I was fine with multiplication tables (rote) but putting numbers together and separating them into their meanings and then applying letters—all of it was nonsense talk.
In eighth grade, I was chosen by someone—I don’t remember who—to represent our school in a regional spelling bee sponsored by a local newspaper that has since folded.
I fell in love with words in front of my parents’ bookcase when I pulled down the paperback edition of Jaws by Peter Benchley.
My love of words flourished with Miss Ann asking me to read the entire Pug book to our kindergarten class. I knew I had something. This knowledge was mine, could not be taken away, could not be messed with. It could only be added to. It could only multiply. (Math, but still.)
I was given a practice booklet with the stamp of the spelling bee’s sponsor on the cover and told to practice the words in the book. Lists and lists of love objects.
Then I had the library, my weekly Saturday rendezvous with my father where I was allowed to touch and pull out and take home books and kid magazines and I learned all the sections in a way you memorize places you love. I knew where to look for my favorite books: the mystery books, the books about werewolves, haunted houses. I knew something about these things, living in a house where people turned into something horrible and animal when they drank, houses with long dark hallways. My library was the place full of light where I could peruse baskets and colorful plastic bins of journals made for kids, science wrapped in fun in the pages of magazines written in kid language. A place full of words solidified my love.
I was not the child you now see profiled in national spelling bee championships. There are many different reasons for this. No one around me knew how to help me and therefore, they made no offers. I did not know enough to successfully practice on my own.
By second grade we had those thick spelling books with the crinkly pages that reminded me of my grandmother’s bible. These books contained weekly vocabulary lists and exercises and games all made so we could practice words over and over. We were asked to take vocabulary lists and write each word in a sentence and I loved this exercise, the novelty of creating my own sentences with just one word as the crux, the pivot point.
Letters, words, sentences, an orgy for my senses: when spelling bees came into my consciousness it felt natural. I was asked to take each word and pull it apart into its sounds, or notice the word’s weird indifference to the basic nature of the letters it was composed of. Spelling was a tool, it was magic, it was rational and irrational—it all depended on the word.
Kaleidoscope of words. It’s no wonder I have words tattooed on my body.
I was a young adolescent who thought she was in love with her English teacher.
He showed up at the auditorium the day of the spelling bee, and I had to hide the girl who was talking to this teacher on the phone most nights into the wee hours, using letters, sounds, words, to communicate so much and so little. He also used letters, sounds, words to communicate to me how much he wanted me.
Pleach: to interweave (branches, vines, etc.) as for a hedge or arbor
There are a million words I’ve read, pronouncing them only in my head, and when I must say them aloud they come out wrong and I feel a shame. I’ve betrayed my love object.
Want. W A N T
My teacher arrived at the spelling bee with a gift for me: an uncut diamond.
There are a million words I don’t know and might never read or say. What circumstances align to let me read or say them, what circumstances occur to make sure that I come across the words I come across? Need to come across?
Pleach: to make or renew (a hedge, arbor, etc.) by such interweaving
I was not a girl who understood the worth or the depth or the sentiment of such a gift. It was a tiny shiny jagged thing I had to keep in the smallest baggie I had ever seen, and then I had to keep track of that baggie.
Of course I lost the baggie with the diamond over the years. I know I lost it because many times through high school and college, desperate for money, I searched for it, sticking my fingers into the velvety crevices of jewelry boxes. Gone.
My teacher handed it to me when my parents weren’t paying attention. He had already compared me to this object on the phone. Uncut, rough. Yes, you could say that. Perhaps of any fourteen-year-old girl.
I did not last for more than a few rounds in the regional bee.
I lost on a word that felt like a trick. I had never heard it or read it and it seemed too easy to spell it in the most obvious way. So I fucked it up. P L E E C H
Sort of like L E E C H.
And I lost the diamond. Shine on you crazy diamond, I’d sing drunk, high, years and decades later.
There were no spelling bees in high school. I would never have said yes to one by that point anyway.
My homeroom teacher expressed regret that he and my class had not made it their mission to help me practice during our time together every day leading up to the spelling bee.
It was okay. I still knew the power of the letters, the sounds, the words. I know how to spell PLEACH forever. And that diamond—it was only a metaphor made by a lost man. There would be plenty more metaphors to come. I would make them myself.
Yet I lost more than the spelling bee that day, that year.
How I love the weaving in this writing: what it says and what it does not say and what it reveals, slowly.
“Letters, words, sentences, an orgy for my senses…” indeed. Great piece!
Such a lovely piece that captures so much in one moment. A beautiful note on the poignancy of growing up, letting go and what is lost.
That did not go as I expected! Love what you did with that uncut diamond.
Sounds so familiar a story it could be mine – I’ve never forgotten how to spell ‘Sea of Okhotsk’. Nicely done, evocative on several levels.
Evoking the beautiful, again, Wendy.
Dyslexic and undiagnosed as a child I had an extreem and unhealthy fear of spelling bees.
Strange, what was once fear, is now passion.
A lovely piece of writing. Spelling is rich and deep and marks us, doesn’t it?
The teacher sounds like a creep.
The word ‘pleach’ is related to ‘pleat’ and ‘plait’. The ‘ea’ digraph is found in words with relatives spelled with an ‘a’ or ‘ai’.
Spelling bees are the times tables of language study: all memorization, no putting together or taking apart of anything meaningful. Such a pity: spelling has so much more to teach us than random lists of words . . .
Such a great piece–I’m going to share it with my students this evening.
L-O-V-E this piece. Amazing how some words have such power…-
I love love love this piece. I love the love of words, the structure, the child bumping up against something heading towards adult. I love the foreboding of the English teacher, and the metaphor of the diamond. Hungry for more of this.