Spelling it Out
She has more than an hour of homework every night, in French and English. There is music theory to be memorized and viola to be practiced. She has an activity after school three days out of five. This leaves little time for Short-pants to simply be a child and inhabit her imagination unhindered. Then the extra projects: in the last few weeks she wrote a short story to submit to a competition for her English class and she’s had three meetings with a small group of her classmates to prepare an exposé on the topic of the Ancient Romans. Don’t even get me started on this – it was just as tedious as last year’s assignment (read about that here and here) and designed, it seems, to test the parents’ patience as much (if not more) than to measure the students aptitude preparing a report.
So when the note came from school about a citywide English spelling bee, my first instinct was I don’t think so. It’s too much, too tough on her. But of course, we didn’t want to make an assumption, so De-facto asked her if she’d like to participate. She was jumping-up-and-down thrilled about entering.
“Okay then,” I said, attaching the application form to the refrigerator with a magnet, “we’ll sign you up.” Why not fill it out then and there and send it in right away? Probably my own inertia; a spelling bee is more work for us, time going over the list of words with her, and schlepping her someplace on a Saturday. Maybe it wasn’t that she had so much enthusiasm, but that I had none. It’s tough being a mom and having to be cheerful about all matter of things you aren’t really deeply cheerful about.
We did sign her up, and just in time. In an exceptional flash of memory, anomalous to my usual state of maternal mindlessness – it came to me while I was out of town, in the middle of a job: we’ve got to get that application in before its due date! I emailed De-facto, who insisted that he was totally aware of the looming deadline. He left a photocopy of the completed application on the fridge as proof of compliance. Later, I reviewed it approvingly, until I noticed he’d misspelled the name of her school.
“So what?” he said, until it dawned on him, the irony of it.
Let’s hope she didn’t get her DNA for spelling from him. Nor from me, since I am a handicapped speller as a result of a scholastic experiment with the International Teaching Alphabet (ITA) when I was in the first grade. My first alphabet was phonetic, with funny connected lettering that made for interesting spellings (ergo the odd-looking title of the childhood book I authored, U.D.T. Rool Book). In second grade, I had to learn the regular English alphabet and unlearn all the phonetically-spelled words I’d been taught the year before. My spelling has never fully recovered. I managed, however, to persevere, competing aggressively in my 5th grade spelling bee. I was one of four students in the final round, and I was certain I would win. Rule #1 in spelling bees (and life): never get cocky. My first reaction to the word that eliminated me was “Oh, that’s easy.” Then I went on to misspell alcohol. Yes, it’s prophetic.
De-facto’s nemesis-word was crocodile. He made the same error that I did. mistaking the middle O for an A and eliminating himself from the final round of his spelling bee, too. Will Short-pants do what every generation is supposed to do and exceed our mediocre achievements? Or is she saddled with our sloppy and cocky spelling habits?
I wonder about the pressure that is hoisted on such a young creature to perform at such a young age. I’ve mentioned the hours of homework, which follow a grueling 8-hour day at school. Tests are frequent and often a surprise event. Students are graded out loud. Class ranking is public. Everywhere they go, life is rigorous for children in France. It feels like their childhoods are robbed from them. Or am I over-sensitive? Is this all just good preparation for the future, toughening them up for real life?
It makes me think of my Uncle Buddy, a man with a generous heart and a rigorous spirit but little tolerance or sympathy for kvetching. I can picture him now, cocking his head with a mocking frown, rolling his eyes. “That’s tough,” he’d say, “spelled T-O-O, B-A-D.”
This morning De-facto accompanied her to the first round of the spelling bee. She sat with 53 other students at her age level (there are 77 signed up, total) for the written competition. The top spellers from this round become finalists in the oral contest at the end of May.
Short-pants returned from the test, beaming. I asked her how it went.
“It was great!” she said, meaning it, “Except I got two words wrong: laundry and medley.” She and her papa had gone through the list on the way home, remarkably she could recall the words she’d had to spell.
“Medley is a tough one,” I told her, remembering my own bout with alcohol.
“It’s okay,” she said, “now I’ll know it for the next time.”
She’s tougher than I think, our little speller, isn’t she?
(The painting pictured above is by Blair Bradshaw.)