Spelling Bees have always had a special significance for me going back to 1979, when, as I completed a decade in the public schools in Silvis, Illinois at the junior high school level, a “new gun in town” swept into our district and began barking orders like a drill sergeant about how all of the English department (all 3 of us) were going to be participating in the Big Deal Spelling Bee sponsored by our local newspaper, and about how SHE was going to be attending meetings to facilitate same (while the Principal of our Junior High School covered her classes) so she could be absent from the drudgery of teaching, blah, blah, blah.
The teacher—I’ll call her Jill St. John, (although that was not her real name)—did not even have a valid 4-year teaching certificate at the time, but was working to secure it. Why, then, was she being positioned as the Queen Bee of the Spelling Bee and bossing others around, which included calling several meetings at the crack of dawn at least one hour before school was even scheduled to start? [I am happy to report that I did not attend a single early-morning meeting; I’d rather be shot at dawn than have to go to such a meeting at 7 a.m. The very thought made me sick, so that’s what I was on those days.]
Why, she was married to the Superintendent of Schools of a very small nearby community, which I will call White Cliffs, for the purpose of this rehash of my deep-seated resentment of Spelling Bee Oh-So-Proper mentality. Ultimately, Jill and her husband left town under a very dark cloud that smacks of some of the abuses of the Catholic Church. But, during that school year, the Queen Bee was riding high and riding herd.
It seemed intrinsically unfair, to me, that a teacher who had just arrived on the scene (and wasn’t even fully certified) had suddenly been named Big Cheese, with all the rest of the English department (i.e., all 2 of us) supposed to kiss the Papal ring. I had even been named one of the “Ten Most Creative Teachers in America” in a TAB Scholastic Magazine contest shortly before this.
While I had (and have) nothing against spelling bees, up to that point, and would have enjoyed participating in one when a young girl, the pages and pages of directions for procedures on HOW we were to go about selecting our contestant of choice for the entire school were ludicrous, impractical and so time-consuming as to be virtually useless.
I was already supposed to be teaching Language Arts: Literature, Grammar, Composition and, (in a separate report card grade), Spelling in one 45-minute period. I barely had time to work in FOUR separate disciplines daily, giving 10 minutes per day to each. I was very “high” on writing/composition in my classes, and I also volunteered my time to run two different speech competitions (Modern Woodmen Oratorical Contest and Optimists Oratorical Competition) after school, as well as being the school newspaper supervisor, so running interminable “spell offs” in my classroom during the ordinary classroom day, in addition to the tasks described here, was not in the cards. When I saw the “recommendations” for HOW we were to come up with our contestants, I quickly realized that my best method would be to check the highest I.Q.’s in my study hall (which was held last hour of the day) and see if the two brightest students I had at that time of day would be willing to “spell” each other during the hour, which was an hour given over to doing one’s homework and otherwise taxing the patience of the study hall supervisor. Therefore, Chris Thompson and Fred Cernetisch became my duly selected contestants, and life went on as usual, with my students, at least, receiving a balanced diet of Literature, Composition, Grammar and Spelling. We had our “contestants” and all was right with the Language Arts World in my classroom, but things were rapidly going downhill in Jill St. John’s classroom right next door.
Mrs. St. John plunged into her new-found prominence with great gusto and began doing things exactly the way the myriad sheets of directions from our local newspaper described, which meant that she had no time to actually teach anything else. It also meant that there were upsets aplenty during her “Spell offs.”
The smartest and best and most motivated students did not, like cream, rise to the top of the Spelling Bee food chain in her numerous and never-ending elimination(s). As can happen in the real deal, chance and luck played a big part, and she did not care for the contestants who ended up as the “winners” of her never-ending spelling bee preliminaries. In fact, she disliked their odds of winning anything beyond a prison sentence so much (when compared to Chris and Fred’s odds, anyway) that she ran in a ringer—a boy who had been out with a broken leg but was among the smartest in the school, who hobbled onstage with his leg in a cast, never having taken part in any of her charade of “Spell Offs.” (That student is now a physician and almost certainly was among the highest I.Q.’s in the entire school).
The budding doctor, however, was a bit of a problem child. He didn’t really care that much for sitting through classes that did not challenge his superior abilities, and he had recently been disciplined at the school picnic for bringing a giant jam box and blasting hip hop music with obscene lyrics. (All in a day’s work for the school’s budding genius.)
This student—I’ll call him “Mike”—could not be counted on to apply himself with any diligence to the task of actually studying a bunch of dry spelling words. He wasn’t of the ethnic strains that “home school” their child and do NOTHING but study spelling words for months. (Now THERE’S a well-rounded child…if all you want him or her to be able to do is spell “antidisestablishmentarianism!”)
So, during the REAL spell-off in our school gym several things happened that were unexpected.
First, all of my teaching colleagues whom I had considered good friends and with whom I had stormed the barricades to achieve recognition for our teachers’ group over a three-year period, went to work setting up chairs and helping Jill St. John out, which I considered, then and now, a real slap in the face.
Second, during the actual Spell-off to determine who would be our junior high school’s contestant, the judges, under the leadership of Jill St. John, seemed oblivious to the fact that “Mike” had just misspelled a word and eliminated himself. I was upstairs in the overlooking band balcony and actually had to stand up and yell down at the assembled PTB, “What about ‘predestination’?” (or whatever the offending word was). The judges finally had to acknowledge that Mr. Future Surgeon had missed his word and the contestant from my homeroom (Chris) was the winner of the “Spell off.”
Third: the fact that the contestant from my homeroom won and hers did not so enraged Jill St. John that she totally lost it in the hallway after school. With plenty of students within earshot, she began swearing a blue streak at me (as it turned out, Jill St. John had the vocabulary of a sailor). And let’s not forget that she had gone back on her own many and numerous “directives.” After countless hours wasted having “spell offs” in her classroom, she had adopted my strategy and simply selected her smartest study hall student to compete, rather than abiding by the rather lengthy and capricious results she obtained while following the directions of the local newspaper.
“Next year,” she screamed, “this will be televised!”
I barely managed to keep from saying Big Whoop.
I maintained my calm (just barely) and asked her if she’d mind accompanying me to the office to repeat everything she had just said (screamed, actually) for our esteemed Principal, Mr. DoNothing.
We marched down to the office, me determined to have all the wrongs I had suffered for months set right, but the Principal (Mr. Do-Nothing, as opposed to Dr. DoLittle) did his usual straddling of the fence. He ushered me, solo, into his office, keeping the salty-tongued Jill in his outer office.
I remember asking him, “Just exactly who IS the Chairman of the English department? I’ve been here 10 years and have a Master’s degree plus 30 hours. Why is this woman bossing everyone around, calling early morning meetings, and swearing at me in the halls, to boot?”
Mr. Do-Nothing answered that we didn’t HAVE “Chairmen” of our departments, [which was a crock], and ushered me out a side door that exited outside, suggesting that I leave early for the day. I was pissed and likely to remain so, since I still am, 34 years later. He then ushered Jill St. John into his office where they, no doubt, commiserated on how difficult Mrs. Wilson was and how wonderful her behavior had been, because, after all, SHE was married to the Superintendent of White Cliff School District, [which he would soon leave under a very black cloud].
However, the “right” student won (and, later, went to work for me at Sylvan for 15 years) but, as luck would have it, her grandparents offered her a trip to Hawaii that was to take place at exactly the same time as the aforementioned Spelling Bee Finals, which were to be held at Augustana College during Easter break.
So, “Mike”—as runner-up—-with his cast now off his leg—is shown in the official school yearbook front and center with the TRUE winner (Chris) stuck somewhere in the back of the photo. I was never issued an apology by the woman who swore a blue streak at me in the halls, and, at the end of that school year, I took one entire year off from teaching to ponder a school district that valued my efforts so little and kissed ass so much.
Did I quit?
No, I did not. I returned after one year away (spent looking for work at a higher level) and taught 5 more years before quitting for good. to take a job writing for Performance Learning Systems, Inc.
But now you have the background of my disdain for Spelling Bees, with which I preface a review of “Bad Words” to follow. While I think Spelling Bees can be fun and useful, I don’t think that staying home and doing NOTHING but studying spelling words has much to recommend it as being the best possible educational course of action, and I still remember the injustice(s) of the first one held at my school in school year 1979-1980.