Back in the eighth grade, I won my junior high school’s spelling bee and got to represent my town at the regional spelling bee, sponsored by the Patriot Ledger newspaper. To me, I may not have been the best representative because I had actually lost the spelling bee first, before winning it.
Sitting closest to the door (for ease of escape in the event of one of those spelling bee riots you hear about all the time), to the teacher’s left, I was given the word first. “Doctrine,” she said. This was ironic because I had recently spent four months that year obsessing on this very same word.
Six months prior, I was Bar Mitzvahed, a day when a Jewish boy becomes a man in every way except for body hair, hormones, bank account, sexual exploits, first and so on. (I’m not sure exactly how the manhood myth actually started, but it probably had to do with the fact that everyone only lived til they turned twenty.)
On that day, I had to recite one particular passage from the prayer book. It read (and haunts me to this day) — “Behold, a good doctrine has been given you, my Torah.” I spent waaaaaaay too long discussing the proper intonation needed for the excerpt. Was I addressing the Torah as in “Hey, Torah, how’s it goin’? Oh, before I forget. . . I’m giving you a good doctrine”? Or is it the Torah, in fact, that is the doctrine of which I am referring?
The guy with whom I was Bar Mitzvahed and I went over this again and again and could not come up with a consensus. The rabbi contributed his two cents by explaining he didn’t understand the question and couldn’t give me an accurate answer. (Thanks for the wisdom, your Holiness.)
I found it hard to believe no one had posed the question to him before. You’re saying I’m the only one literate enough to notice the ambiguity of that sentence? Or perhaps I was the only one crazy enough to care. It’s like the 2% of nutbags who choose cumquat as a vegetable beginning with “c” instead of carrot.
Yes, I saw the word “doctrine” in my sleep. That word was right there in front of me for months! And yet. . .
When the moderator read the word to me, I was all at once dancing gleefully inside at my good fortune, and weeping because I couldn’t remember exactly how it was spelled. It was either one way (the correct way) or the other. My heart beat faster. Time was ticking. So I took my shot and spelled it as “doctor” and then “-ine,” i.e. the wrong way.
“No,” she said succinctly, and I exhaled. My heart returned to its normal pace and I sat back to watch the other participants as a spectator. (Have you ever watched a spelling bee as a spectator? It’s as boring as watching. . . no, wait, I’m mistaken. Nothing is as boring as watching a spelling bee as a spectator. Add the humiliation of defeat to that and you’ve got my situation.)
Now, I knew there were only two ways this word could be spelled and there were five more people in line to attempt to spell it. To. . . this. . . day, I have absolutely zero idea how every single one of those people failed to spell the word correctly. No fewer than two of them spelled it the exact same way I did, like it was some sort of trick the teacher was pulling on them and they said, “We’re not falling for it. We know Andy spelled it right, but not with the conviction I’m going to spell it.” And three of them spelled completely different words, I think.
“Sheesh, wasn’t anyone listening to me?” I thought.
The teacher (no doubt, silently dying inside) shrugged and looked back to me, “Well, I guess you’re back in.”
Seriously? “Well, okay. It’s d-o-c-t-r-i-n-e,” I rattled off quickly. And from there, I was a house afire nailing word after word and watching as my competitors crumbled at the feet of my reborn brilliance. I even walked out of the room throwing random words back at the teacher, thus earning me the world’s first spelling bee taunting penalty.
It was then that I realized that the most tragic issue in America during the mid-80s was not drugs, the Cold War, nor New Coke, but it was the failure of the school system to properly teach the spelling of the word “doctrine.” Remember, this was before spellcheck when we actually had to know how to spell words.
Anyway, this was years before New England Patriots hero Tom Brady became famous by leading a game-winning drive against the Raiders in the playoffs after fumbling the ball away. Due to a technicality, he got a second chance. There’s nothing wrong with that, come to think of it. Legends are made on second chances!
Of course, there are second chances that never develop into anything memorable as well. And so for the next few weeks, I studied the booklet of potential words and arrived at the Regionals with my mother and best friend William there to support me.
This bee was far less eventful – Round One: “anklet.” I thought, are you serious? “A-n-k-l-e-t,” I said, and returned to my chair to pray all the other entrants had a massive collective panic attack and withdrew. (I always thought a spelling bee contestant should treat a correctly spelled word like a touchdown and act accordingly, with a dance, a little shimmy, or spiking the inhaler of the kid next to you.)
Round Two comes around: “veinless.” Now, before you scoff and say how easy it is, when I heard the word, I immediately considered that the word “vein” is a homophone. Was it referring to the veins in the human body? A weather vane? I could eliminate that it was vain, as in conceited. But I still had to narrow down the two options.
Can you use it in a sentence? I asked.
“Something without veins is veinless.”
Can you give me the definition?
“The definition of veinless is ‘without veins,’ or ‘lacking veins’.” (Gee, thanks.)
Can you give me the origin of the word?
“The word comes from the Latin.” (Of course it did. Why wouldn’t it?)
Can you spell the first couple of letters for me?
How about a different sentence?
Can you — ?
“Just spell the damn word, kid!”
I took my shot. I mean, we didn’t have a weather vane on our roof at home and my mother never once referred to our house as vaneless.
Again, dancing inside my head, spiking inhaler.
Then a couple of people got eliminated (ha! idiots!) and it came around to me again. Round Three!
Now, I don’t know if I’ve blocked it out, but I cannot, for the life of me, remember what my third word was. I do remember asking all the previous questions in the hopes they would admire my thoroughness and just give me a pass to the next round, but when they didn’t, I did not even approach its correct spelling.
A big relief as order had been restored to the universe. And with that, spell check came along and further destroyed my ability to spell.
So it just goes to show that you can win for losing. But in the end, it was my ultimate failure which paved the way for Tom Brady to be remembered as the greatest second chance artist in history.