From Total Triumph to Withering Humiliation: Vermont Writers to Engage in War of Words at Library Spelling Bee

by Max Shenk

On Saturday, February 23 at 7 p.m., Kellogg-Hubbard Library is presenting Cabin Fever Winter Spelling Bee, featuring 21 Vermont authors and poets who are hoping, if not to win, to at least avoid embarrassment and humiliation at the hands of their peers.

Spelling bees seem to stir up memories that many writers would rather forget. A few of the participants in Saturday’s event won spelling bees at one time or another, but they hardly sounded triumphant.

Rowan Jacobsen, author of Shadows on the Gulf, backed into a sixth-grade spelling bee victory on the word nigh.

“I’d never heard the word in my life,” Jacobsen said, “but the other finalist tried N-Y-E and was wrong, so I took a stab at N-I-G-H and won.”

Poet Jody Gladding, an instructor at Vermont College, never competed in a spelling bee “but throughout grade school we had weekly spelling tests. In fifth grade, if you got 100 on all the spelling tests all year, you won a prize, and I cheated on the last spelling test because I really wanted to win.”

“And the word I cheated on was honor,” Gladding added. “So I guess things can only go up from there.”

A few of the participants are spelling bee rookies. Novelist Thomas Christopher Greene says he’s “never been in a spelling bee that I know of,” and therefore has never won a spelling bee (“and I’m not anticipating that changing”), and, when asked if he had any spelling bee horror stories, replied, “Talk to me after Saturday.”

Author and journalist David Dobbs said that he hasn’t lost a spelling bee yet.

“I’ve never compeeted before,” he wrote. “I’m undefeeted.”

Does Dobbs expect to win Saturday’s event? “Stay tooned.”

Certain words repeatedly send the contestants to the dictionary. Gladding and David Goodman both said that they habitually misspell misspell, while Leda Schubert said vacuum gives her problems.

“One c, two u’s,” she asserted hesitantly.

“People often accuse me of misspelling my first name,” poet Geof Hewitt said, “but I have greatest trouble with eleemosynary, which I have to look up every time I want to write it.” There were three times that Hewitt couldn’t look it up: when he was given the word in spelling bees in fifth, seventh and eighth grades.

“Trouble is,” Hewitt asked, “how do you find a word you don’t know how to spell?”

Food columnist Marialisa Calta listed accommodate, renovate, occurrence, occasionally, judgment and privilege as her “problem words.”

“In fact,” she e-mailed The Bridge, “as I was typing these, spellcheck alerted me to the fact that I misspelled three of them.”

Calta added that she considers spell-check “to be the work of the devil. Whatever spelling chops I had have gone downhill because I no longer have to remember that renovate has one n, nor do I have to look it up, which might help me remember the next time. And how do you spell spell-check? One word or two?”

Novelist R. A. Harold said that, as a native Scot who grew up with British spelling, she’s “prone to misspelling (or properly spelling, depending on your perspective!) words that are spelled differently between British and American English, like jewellery versus jewelry.

Harold also said that the “i before e” rule confuses her, as it did Burr Morse (“How about diesel? Should be deisel”) and Gladding (“Weird? Wierd?”).

The participants said that they’re looking forward to Saturday’s showdown, for a lot of reasons.

“It should be highly competitive because a lot of us know each other,” said Schubert. “I’m going to have a lot of fun. I’ll be the wisecracker in the corner. I hope I’m not eliminated early, but I suppose I can keep making wisecracks after I’m eliminated.”

“I love the idea of a writers’ spelling bee,” said novelist David Carkeet. “Let’s face it: writers are showoffs and egomaniacs, and what swifter way to bring them down than this event?”

The Cabin Fever Spelling Bee takes place at Kellogg-Hubbard Library on Saturday night, February 23, at 7 p.m. There will also be a silent auction of books by the participants. Tickets for the event are $10 and proceeds benefit the library.


David Goodman’s Tale of Defeat

We asked the KHL spelling bee contestants for their spelling bee memories and tales of victory (or defeat). Writer David Goodman replied as follows:

I was a finalist in my elementary school spelling bee in sixth grade. We were all on the stage in the school cafeteria. I had outlasted numerous other spelling bee contestants, and my moment of glory was near. I could feel it. Taste it. The brass ring was going to fit perfectly on my finger. My foul shot may have been unreliable, my baseball hitting questionable and my football receiving talents were dubious. But I could spell like nobody’s business. It was down to me and Rita Caprino. She was a big, mouthy girl with a voice that sounded like a metal file pulling across a dull chain saw. And then came the moment of truth, the moment I was going to demolish Rita Caprino’s dreams of glory and silence her ever-flapping mouth for good . . .

Which word did you win (or lose) with?

Cylinder. Which I coolly and confidently spelled: C-Y-L-I-N-D-A-R.

The moderator, Mr. Romanski, said, “I’m sorry, that’s incorrect, David. Rita, please spell cylinder.”

I sank down in my folding metal chair. Now I could only hope . . . that Rita Caprino would have a brain cramp. That she, for the first time in her oh-so-annoying life, would be at a loss for words. The prospect of her screwing up was now the only thing separating me from the rest of the hoi polloi who were my classmates.

Rita Caprino stood tall, her shoulders back, her chin jutting forward. A broad gap-tooth smile spread across her face. She was going in for the kill and savoring the moment. She threw me a cruel sideways glance and took her sweet time.

“C-Y-L-I-N-D-E-R,” she bellowed triumphantly. I sank down in my chair. Each letter echoed off the tile floor and ricocheted right at me, striking me like a hail of darts.

“Boys and girls,” declared Mr. Romanski, our bald principal whose head suddenly seemed to be blindingly shiny, “please give a round of applause for the new sixth-grade spelling champion, Rita Caprino!” I shrank off the stage, my head hanging in a state of shock and despair.

Back in my sixth-grade classroom, Rita Caprino made a point of waltzing right by my desk.

“What kind of idiot doesn’t know how to spell cylinder?!” she muttered loud enough for everyone to hear. My fingers curled in a tight fist but somehow I resisted the urge to even the score right then and there.

Besides that, I don’t really remember much about my spelling bees.