Archives for : February2015

The Spelling Bee

Following is a mostly-true vintage story about my experience of growing up in a small town in northern Minnesota and winning the county spelling bee.  It is told in the voice of the eighth-grader I was.  I sold it as fiction to the Minneapolis Tribune Sunday Magazine many years ago.  I was a savorer of words then, and I still am.

 

THE SPELLING BEE

6

By Sharon Anderson Sheppard

 

If I’d have known that winning the school spelling bee meant riding up to the county seat with old Horace Botz, I would’ve spelled “connoisseur” with one “n.”  Even though I’d been secretly hoping all year that I’d win, nobody suspected that it mattered a lick to me one way or the other.  But whenever I closed my eyes, I could picture that brass trophy with my name on it.

Sharon Elizabeth Anderson it would read in gothic script, County Spelling Champion, 1950.

Some people are pretty.  But with freckles and kinda crooked teeth, I’m definitely not.  If I had a choice, it sure would be nice to be pretty.  But I can spell—backwards and forwards.

It’s a wonder I can spell, since my folks grew up speaking Norwegian and Danish, and you can still hear Mama and Daddy’s Scandinavian accents when they talk.    If you asked me to make some generalizations about Norwegians and Danes, I’d have to tell you that Norwegians are quiet and reserved, and they don’t talk that much.  On the other hand, Danes are emotional and gushy and high strung.  At least that’s the way it is at our house.  Daddy doesn’t talk much, and he is always calm and in control.  Now Mama is another story.  She gets excited over the least little thing.  She’s got a real soft heart.  I hope I turn out like Daddy.

Anyway, I was telling you about the spelling bee.  When I came home with the news that I was the school champion, Daddy just smiled and said, “That’s nice, Sharon.  Real nice.” But his eyes were shiny and I knew he was proud.  Mama, on the other hand, shrieked and hugged me and whirled me around the room, and there were tears in her eyes.  I’m too big to be whirled around the room.  No sooner had we got that over with when she started worrying about what I was gonna wear to the county spelling bee in March.

That night we pulled out some options from my very limited wardrobe and settled on a navy blue skirt and white blouse.  Unfortunately, the skirt had a small spot where a drop of bleach must’ve spattered on it.  But after Mama rubbed some navy blue ink over the spot, it hardly showed at all.  I just hoped it wouldn’t snow the day of the contest and smear the ink.

Everything would have been perfect if I hadn’t been stuck with old Horace Botz.  I mean, do you have any idea how embarrassing it is to have a man for a teacher, and an old one at that?  My girlfriend’s mother even had him when she was in eighth grade.  He can’t help that he’s old, but the worst of it is, he thinks he’s funny.  Teachers shouldn’t try to have a sense of humor.  Anyway, I had to ride all the way up to the county seat with him.  He said I could choose a friend to go along.   I chose Mary Ann, who’s fun and funny and my best friend, now that Shirley moved away.

Meanwhile, old Botz gave me lists of words to study from, and I didn’t let on, but I went over every one of those lists dozens of times.  You couldn’t stump me on a one of ’em.  Like I say, I can spell.  You might say it’s almost a disease with me.  I read a lot, but not very fast because I like to look for palindromes and make lots of little words out of big ones.  Anyway, I’m pretty good at spelling, but I didn’t know if I’d be good enough.

I’d been ready for almost half an hour when old Botz’s black Model A pulled into our driveway.  Mama kissed me (she doesn’t realize I’m too big to kiss) and told me she’d be praying for me.  Mary Ann was already in the car, tickled pink to be getting out of a day of school.  I was mighty glad to have her along, because she kept up a steady stream of chatter all the way up, and I hardly had to say a word.

When we hit the city limits, there was a big billboard that read Welcome to Shingobee Recreation Area, 127 lakes in a 10-mile radius.  By the time we had reached the high school where the contest was to be held, I had made 28 little words out of Shingobee, and still hadn’t exhausted all of the possibilities.

The first person I saw was Alice Klinghammer, the defending champion.  I would’ve known her anywhere from her picture in the county paper last year when she won.  She looked just as snooty in person as she had in her picture, and she was dressed like a persnickety city girl.  She was wearing a store-bought wool plaid skirt with a matching sweater and saddle shoes.  A tiny gold A hung from a fine chain around her neck, and her brown hair was all fluffed up in a stylish hairdo.  Sickening, really.

She was huddled with a couple of girlfriends, giggling.  The three of them sized me up, then whispered to each other and laughed.  I could feel my freckled face getting red, right up to the roots of my frizzy, dishwater blond hair.  Mary Ann squeezed my hand and whispered, “You’re gonna’ win, Sharon, I just know it!  There’s nobody here who can beat you.”

The pronouncer spaced us all apart so we couldn’t see each other’s papers for the written test, then he gave us each a sharp Ticonderoga pencil.

“All set?” he asked with a fake little smile.  No one said anything.  He took a deep breath and began.  My stomach felt like it had a couple of live frogs fightin’ it out, but after the first 20 words or so, I started to calm down.

The man droned on in his English-teacher diction, through chartreuse, supercede, candelabrum, and surveillance.  I struggled with “rotisserie.”  It didn’t look right.  Then the man said, “Pencils down, please.”  We took a break while the teachers corrected the written tests.

Mary Ann was waiting for me out in the hall.  I slurped a drink of warm rusty water out of the fountain, and water dribbled down my chin.  Across the hall Alice was putting on an act.  “Really, the words here today were so simple.  I think I got a perfect paper,” she bragged.  “I had so much fun at State last year!  I’ll just die if I don’t win!”  She straightened her gold necklace and whispered so loud every one of us could hear.  “I don’t think I’ll have any trouble.  These kids all look so young.  I don’t think there’s anybody here older than sixth grade!”  She patted her hair and looked at the rest of us like we were county hicks.  Which some of us were.

Old Botz came out and asked the contestants to come back into the room.  Slowly the emcee read the names of the top five scorers.  I swallowed hard.  Mine was the last one read.

The five of us lined up at the front of the room.  “Each word will be pronounced twice.  You will have ten seconds to begin spelling.”  The emcee licked his thin lips.  “Once you have spoken a letter, there will be no changing it, so think carefully before you respond.  Is everyone ready?”

We all nodded solemnly.  The five of us eyed each other surreptitiously.  (Bet I could get at least 50 words out of surreptitiously.)

“Charles, we will begin with you,” the pronouncer said.  His word was “paraphernalia,” and he spelled it correctly.  Douglas got “ricochet”; Margaret, “liaison”; and Alice, “renaissance.”

“Querulousness,” the man said when it was my turn, and I was grateful for an easy one.

On and on he droned, but nobody budged from the line.  Finally Charles went down on “vicissitude.” A few minutes later Margaret forgot the first “i” in “parliamentarian.”  She looked like she was gonna cry.  The rounds went on to more difficult words.  Finally only Alice and I were standing.  She glanced at me sideways, and she was beginning to look a little nervous.  I remembered that Horace Botz would probably have to ride along in my dad’s old Chevy if I went to the state finals in St. Paul.  Alice sailed through hieroglyphic and lachrymose and syzygy.  I spelled pusillanimous and bacchanalian and catarrh.

I looked at the clock.  We’d been standing for 30 minutes and we were both getting tired.  Finally Alice faltered on tatterdemalion.  As soon as I heard her say that second “l” I knew she’d had it.  The pronouncer shook his head slowly.  “I’m sorry, Alice.”  She shot me a look of total disgust, taking in my frizzy hair, my shabby cardigan with its skillfully mended elbow, my skirt with the almost-concealed bleach spot.  She heaved a huge, unsportsman-like sigh, then stalked over to a chair on the front row and plopped down, nose high in the air.

I took a deep breath.  All I had to do now was to spell that next word correctly, and the trophy would be mine.  I thought about the obnoxious Horace Botz with his stale jokes and his stale breath, and I toyed with the idea of letting Alice have it.  Outside the door, lockers slammed shut and the oak floor creaked under its load of hurrying oxfords and loafers.  I thought about my parents learning to speak English from their Norwegian and Danish parents, and about how my mom who was still working to teach my dad to pronounce his “th” sounds, and how she was probably praying for me right this minute.

“Photophosphorescent,” the man said for the second time, hoping I couldn’t spell it.

“Would you please use that word in a sentence?” I asked, guessing he couldn’t.

“His face got red and he cleared his throat.  “Umm…the object is photophosphorescent,” he snapped impatiently.  I thought about all of the little words I could get out of that one.  Closing my eyes, I spelled it out, slowly, cautiously, so as not to leave out a single syllable.  There was a long, and as they say in books, pregnant pause.  I swallowed hard.  My heart was trying to break out of its cage, and I could feel a trough of perspiration dripping down from each arm to the waistband of my skirt.

The pronouncer stepped forward and held out his hand.  “Congratulations, Sharon Anderson,” he said begrudgingly as he shook my icy hand.  “A splendid performance!”

“Didnelps,” I said to myself, spelling it backwards.

The ride home was embarrassing.  I shoved Mary Ann into the middle again.  Old Botz was babbling on about how proud everyone would be and how nobody from our school had ever won the county championship before.  I’d never heard him give a compliment.  I bet it prit’ near choked him.

It was drafty by the car door, and the wind whistled through the crack where the window wouldn’t quite roll all the way up.  The sinking sun reflected on crusty banks of snow and jackpine-ringed sloughs.  I shivered in my sweat-drenched clothes, wanting nothing so much as to be alone.  My woolen mittens never lost their grip on the brass trophy.  I thought about what Mama and Daddy would say, and I knew that they would be proud of me–very proud.

Mama was waiting at the back door.  I walked slowly into the house, holding the trophy behind me.  “How did it go, Honey?” she asked.  (She still calls me Honey.)  “Did you win?”

“Yeah,” I said.

After enduring a lot of high-powered hugging, which I’m much too old for, I headed for my room to find some dry clothes and see if I couldn’t eke another dozen words out of Shingobee.                                                                                 

© Sharon Sheppard

 

On Wings of Love

February is a time for celebrating matters of the heart.

 

Here are some favorite quotes from Helen Keller, Helen Steiner Rice, and the psalmist, King David.

Helen Keller, author, activist, and lecturer, was the first deaf/blind person to

earn a bachelor’s degree.  She was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964.  She wisely said this:

“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or touched—they must be felt in the heart.”

 

Helen Steiner Rice was a successful businesswoman and lecturer,

but she found more joy in writing inspirational poetry, which endeared her to

the hearts of thousands of 20th Century Americans.

 

On Wings of Love

 

The priceless gift of life is love,
For with the help of God above
Love can change the human race
And make this world a better place
For love dissolves all hate and fear
And makes our vision bright and clear
So we can see and rise above
Our pettiness on wings of love.

Helen Steiner Rice

 

“May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my Rock and My Redeemer.”        King David, Psalm 19:24

 

 

Wow Your Friends — Or Your Spouse — With Baked Fudge!

Want to impress your friends some evening for dessert and coffee?  Or
surprise your spouse for Valentine’s Day!)  This simple six-ingredient
dessert is super-easy, but it requires ramekins. You know–those small
baking dishes you can find at any retail store that handles
kitchenware. Or, better yet, comb the Goodwill Store and buy them for
cheap!
Baked Fudge-2
BAKED FUDGE

  • 2 whole eggs
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 Tbsp. cocoa
  • 2 Tbsp. flour
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • A splash of vanilla

Beat eggs until light and fluffy.  Add sugar and beat some more.  Add
the cocoa, flour, butter, and vanilla.  Place the ramekins in a large
tin pan and add hot water to the pan to about one inch deep.

Pour prepared fudge into the ramekins and bake at 325 degrees for
about 45 minutes.  Don’t overbake.  The inside should be gooey.

Be naughty and serve warm with maple nut ice cream!

Enjoy!

Mary Z.