I was never much for crossword puzzles. That's my older sister's domain. But I did enjoy such things as the Reader's Digest's "Word Power". I enjoyed them because I was good at them. Anything that required the contestant to know the meanings of words or to make as many words as possible out of a given set of letters. The more unreasonable the rules the more I enjoyed it.
Recently I bought my first Reader's Digest in years because it featured a cover article titled Why Aren't You Dead Yet? An intriguing question to me and, I assume, to my doctors. After seven heart attacks and a number of other life-threatening incidents including the surgeries attending each heart episode, nobody would consider me a likely candidate for extended longevity. But here I am.
When I picked up that Reader's Digest, before looking at the article that had attracted me, I went for the Word Power page. I'm a little sorry I did. Twelve out of fifteen correct. Not bad? In "the old days" I'd have had 15 out of 15. Should I say, I'm slipping?
I didn't get into college until I was 34 years old. It was something I'd always wanted but didn't think I'd ever achieve. A few years after moving to Los Angeles I enrolled in L.A. Valley College as an English major. On the first night of one of my early courses, a vocabulary course, the instructor handed out a test that would determine where we stood and how much work each student needed. As she handed the papers back the following week she asked the class, "do you know we have a man in this class who scored sixty-five out of sixty-five on this test? I've been teaching this course for thirty years and this is the first time I've seen this. I feigned a humility I didn't really feel.
But there was a man I felt sorry for. He had a terrible stutter and probably didn't want to draw attention to himself. He had scored, he told me later, 64 out of 65. I thought that deserved at least an honorable mention.
Well, I did title this Spelling Bee 1948, didn't I? Maybe I should get to that.
My family were all good with words. Spelling, parsing, knowing if a sentence was grammatical or not. My mother went to the eighth grade in Ireland. Her father who died before he was forty taught school. So she was sure of good grounding from him, I guess. But she was a born grammarian. If she said it was right it was right; if she said it was wrong it was wrong. No other verification was needed. Her mother had died before her father and when my grandfather passed that left my mother and her three siblings orphans. Against the objections of the rest of my mother's relatives an uncle there who seemed to have the authority dictated that they should all go to the Uncle Willy in Philadelphia who had a mansion and could provide for them, including their education. Well, this was done and the mansion turned out to be a row home in the old Germantown section of Philly where Uncle Willy already had nine children and where their education stopped. Only Julia, the youngest who was only seven, too young to work, got to go to school.
The three who were old enough worked 10 hours a day, six days a week in textile mills. Uncle Willy had his own little industry, a sort of plantation, if you will.
My father's father had come to "the states" in the late 1880s. He raised five children in the old Kensington section of Philadelphia. My father, like my mother, had had to leave school after the eighth grade, common in those days. And like her, if he told you something was right or wrong in matters of grammar and usage you could, as they say, take it to the bank. No teacher would disagree.
From the time when I began school, at the dinner table, I'd ask, "what does p-s-y-c-h-i-a-...spell?" My father would say, "what do you think it spells?" And I'd have to work it out.
This was the way it went.
So, when in the eighth grade, I came home from school and announced that I was going to the Saint Joseph's spelling bee there wasn't much surprise. The St. Joe's spelling bee was a major event for the Philadelphia Catholic Schools. The winner would receive a half-scholarship to St. Joseph's Prep, one of the three most prestigious high schools in the Catholic High School system. The two others were Roman Catholic and La Salle. The cost, while not half what it costs to send a child to grammar school today, was prohibitive for most families.
In preparation for this, Immaculate Conception Grammar School, with a hundred and thirty boys split into two classrooms would have a spelldown, first in one classroom, then in the other, until they had eliminated all but four boys. The last four would be "heard" in the Mother Superior's office. Right now I should make clear that I wasn't anybody's favorite student in that school. I had behavioral problems. So the Mother wasn't pleased that I was among the four finalists. However, after she had "knocked down" the other three, three times, who were among the favorites, she had no choice but to send me to the Big Bee.
I trained hard. My older sister "heard" me daily, even going to the dictionary and resorting to words I'd never even heard. I didn't fail once.
On the big day I dressed in the better of my two suits and rode the subway to the stop above Stiles Street, Columbia, I think. I walked the three blocks to the school at 17th and Stiles. I didn't remember ever even seeing this school from the outside, never mind going in. Inside, I walked the corridors, passing students and faculty, most of them I was sure, being Sunday, were there for the Big Bee. Directed to the auditorium I went in and was immediately struck by the size of it and the number of people already seated. It was nearly full.
On stage were faculty members and behind them my fellow competitors. I was directed to take a seat among them.
There were the usual instructions -- Say the word before and after spelling it; ask for it to be used in a sentence if needed; if you hear the buzzer after you've spelled the word leave the stage by the door on your right. The first boy was called and failed. He left the stage. Then another. Two spelled their words correctly as I remember, then my name was called. The word I was asked to spell was "handiwork". Easy money so far I t told myself. With complete confidence I started, "handiwork, h-a-n-d-y..." The buzzer I thought was rude. Why were they interrupting me? In the middle of the word. I started again and the buzzer buzzed again. I was pointed to the door on the right.
Walking, I'm sure, not ignominiously but arrogantly with visible resentment, toward the door the failures had passed through, now slightly open so the failures could hear and and see the proceedings, I saw one with a dictionary, the others leaning over his shoulder to see. "I spelled that right!" I said."No you didn't," somebody said. I said, "handi..." "That isn't what you said. You said, 'h-a-n-d-y...'" "I'd never say that!" But I think I realized then that what they were saying was true. I knew that all those days and weeks of preparation had resulted in a big flop. Another flop to add to my list. I had blown it. Not just a spelling bee but the first ever over a silly word like handiwork!
But I thought of my parents who had been denied an education at which either of them would have excelled. Although they wouldn't have let me know it they probably saw my winning that scholarship as a kind of vindication for them. My brothers and sister who also wouldn't have let me know it would have been proud. On the interminable subway ride home these were my thoughts.
In class the next day I made up a lie about the word I had failed on. I'm sure the class and certainly the sister who had cheered for the black sheep, sooner or later, knew what had really happened.
But I also knew and have known since that I really didn't want to go to St. Joe's. The reputation of the place, if nothing else, would have intimidated me. However, I'm equally certain that I didn't throw the bee. I wanted to win just to win. I can't tell you what I would have done with the scholarship. Wasted it, probably. Now, thinking of it sixty-eight years later, I'd say, God knew. And maybe He said, "I'll let this kid have his little day but the big prize has to go to somebody who deserves it, somebody who will make good use of it."