This story has been recorded: Listen to it.
THE LESSON OF THE SPELLING BEE
Who would think that a spelling bee involving fifth graders held two and a half decades ago would have rankled and caused blood to boil for twenty three years? Who would think that an event involving an orderly line-up of ten year olds would be the bedrock of years of introspection and taught such valuable lessons?
We lived in a community where six and seven figure incomes were typical. Many residents had impressive titles and trailed university earned degrees. Gardeners and housekeepers and decorators were not anomalies. The public schools reflected the values and resources of the community.
It was an annual tradition that the best spellers of the fifth grade classes took part in a spelling bee held in the office of the vice principal. Our daughter was one of the esteemed spellers. On the morning of the event she was sent off with hugs, congratulations that she had made it as far as the select group, and wished the best. She was a winner in our eyes no matter the outcome.
She came home smiling and eyes twinkling. A miniature trophy was whisked from behind her back. It declared her "BEST FIFTH GRADE SPELLER"! Oh! Delight! The trophy was proudly displayed on the kitchen counter. That was Friday.
Monday this same daughter returned from school looking puzzled and sad. Why? During social studies she had been summoned to the vice principal's office. She was a polite child, did not question authority. Bewildered and perplexed and alone our daughter made her way to the designated office. Already seated in the office was the runner up of Friday's spelling bee, a girl who lived five houses away from us. The vice principal, without explanation, continued the spelling bee.
On this day, my daughter stumbled and misspelled a word. The other girl was congratulated--and they were sent back to their respective classes. Obviously this private rematch was no surprise to the other girl. She had not been summoned from a class; she was already in the office.
I called the school demanding an explanation. Which was? The other child had told her mother that she had been unfairly eliminated from the spelling bee. She had not been properly heard. They had been following the time honored say-spell-say pattern. The girl had not been heard to say the word, and thus ended the bee. The ears of the vice-principal and the other spellers had been mistaken. The mother wanted the two girls rematched. She pushed until her wish was granted.
How is a rematch fair whem one of the two involved has no prior notice of it? Why not just do the enire event again and let everyone have another chance? I had many questions. The vice principal had stubs of answers, all of them literally unintelligable. My final question was "If the other child's mother wanted a private rematch why did she not call us over the weekend. We live a mere five houses apart." There was silence on the other end. Finally an answer. "She told me you lived worlds away." That was the end of the conversation.
If she had lived five miles away would that have made it fair? If she had lived five counties away would that have made it fair? And how is it that the vice principal could readily believe that my daughter was so inaccessible? I knew the answer.
Many of the students who looked like my daughter--brown skinned and puffy haired--were bussed in. They were seen as visitors to the community, maybe even undeserving visitors.
I could have strangled that mother, strangled that vice principal, torched that entire school system. But, of course, I did not. The event is however burned indelibly in my memory.
The other mother only wanted her child's feelings to be honored. That other mother has many qualities that in retrospect I admire. Her home was ordered in such a way that education got first priority. There was a sit down family meal nearly every evening. She was her children's number one cheerleader. She stayed abreast of school events and seldom missed a PTA meeting.
Through an ironic twist of life, her son and my son became best of buddies and when my son was in a life changing automobile accident her son was breathtakingly loyal and supportive. He became a member of our family. In an odd way our families braided.
I can, today, understand the uncomfortable position of that vice principal. Imagine being badgered by two fire breathing mothers over a spelling bee gone awry. I'm certain, or at least I hope, he now knows that the standard of fair does not change according to address or color or assumed income. And even if he does not, it's likely he'd handle the situation differently today.
Most important I can look within myself and hope to weed out situations when I treat others any less than the valuable human creations they are. Degrees, addresses, accents, money, assumptions should make no difference.
And if ever I am in the position of defending another, I hope I speak truth and defend fair, no matter how pressured I am to let inequality reign.
I am sorry our daughter had that experience, I pray she did not have it in vain.