I wasn’t so hot at math. Or Home Economics. But I could spell. In elementary and middle school, I held my breath for spelling bee days, the equal and opposite dread with which I anticipated the gym class gauntlet of clipboards, stopwatches, and chin-up bars comprising the President’s Physical Fitness Award testing process.
No honor among thieves, and not much in the way of loyalty among the “gifted” students, with whom I inevitably shared the few remaining folding chairs on the auditorium stage in the final rounds of every year’s local contest. The other gifted kids were my main allies against ostracism from the cool kids or ridicule from the ones who ate a lot of paste, but on spelling bee days, all that went out the window. I remember clutching my best friend’s hand, sweaty juvenile palm to sweaty juvenile palm, in the last round of the third grade bee, and then letting her go, gently but decisively, when she misspelled “bamboozled” and I subsequently got it right, for the win. A few years later, I didn’t so much as look at anybody when I crushed it all on “xenophobia.”
My brief moments of glory always came to crashing ends at the citywide level, when my parents bundled me into the car on freezing winter Saturdays, driving us into downtown Chicago, where I would always flame out in the early rounds. My recollections of those events are spotty: terror that I would fail, my dad’s stone-faced disappointment, superior eye-rolling from the other smartypants kids, and misspelling “approxAmately.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about years-long but hyper-local reign as the bee queen, as I float on in this quicksandy writer’s block that’s been dogging me for months. I knew “approximately” as confidently as I knew “bamboozled” and “xenophobia,” but something about the change in venue, the weight of the expectation, and – paradoxically – the relative ease with which I had so far proceeded, seemed to erase both my memory of the word lists and my intuitive sense of how letters combined themselves into pairs, phonemes, words, sentences.
I’m still animated by words, and the acts of playing around with them. My mind is busy. So busy that it’s been keeping me up at night. And I’m all enthusiasm for my work. But I can’t seem to string anything together, to make the pieces fit. I’m watching everyone else go through their turns, sailing on to the next or getting eliminated, so anxious for mine, I guess, that I can’t even hear the word I need when it finally does.