I have spent the first half of this weekend up in Appleton, WI with Amy Haines and 14 singers from Carthage, competing in a vocal competition sponsored by NATS- the National Association of Teachers of Singing. In the midst of those competitive efforts, I got a very surprising and exciting phone call Friday night from my good friend Kate Barrow about a very different competition – a contest back home that I was missing because of NATS but which was very much at the back of my mind.
I’m talking about the Racine County Spelling Competition sponsored by the Racine Literacy Council – their major fundraising event of the year. Teams of three enter, and the entrance fee is several hundred dollars (or is it even $500?) so the teams are, I think without exception, sponsored by various businesses and in many cases are comprised of people from those various businesses and institutions. And because it involves some significant money to enter, and also because in most cases you are representing the place where you work, people truly care about this and take it very very seriously. VERY seriously.
There were 10 or 12 teams last year and they included a trio of English professors from UW-Parkside, a trio of Racine Literacy Council volunteer tutors (they took second place and were really tough), a trio from Case (they were the defending champs) – and even a trio of female prison guards . . . and every single one of those teams was really well-prepared and really good.
So was a certain team called Syzygy – comprised of a friend of mine from church named Darryl Sturino, and one of my very best friends, Pastor Walter Hermanns. Darryl got it in his head to enter a team through Hansen Funeral Home, and he thought that Walter and I would be promising teammates. And boy did he work us, like he was the spelling bee’s answer to General Patton, Vince Lombardi and maybe Martha Stewart. He ran the tightest ship you can imagine and really ran us through our paces, with a couple of practice sessions that were not fun and games at all. (Every team was given a practice manual with four hundred words in it.) As the event approached, I think both Walter and I were driven by two parallel motivations – to not disappoint Darryl and to not humiliate ourselves. (Neither of those possibilities seemed very pleasant.)
The night arrived and it turned out to be an even bigger deal than we realized, with the biggest ballroom at ROMA lodge filled with people. . . and with a real sense of electricity in the air. And as the competition got underway, it was clear that everyone had showed up ready to rumble. The competition worked this way- As each team was given a new word, the three teammates could confer for 20 seconds – but then one member of the team (that rotated with each round) would be responsible for going to the mic and actually spelling the word. You could not bring anything with you to the mic. As the competition proceeded, I found that what saved me from dismal failure was that I have much better short term memory than I realized. . . and that if Darryl and Walter could come up with the spelling of a given word and write it out on a piece of paper (which was permitted) I could memorize that spelling and remember it long enough to bark it out over the mic. And in order to not forget, I would head to the mic and spell my words very quickly – which ended up making me look like the most brilliant person in the room, when in fact I was probably one of the dumbest spellers there. But I was blessed with two teammates who were the Peyton Manning and Tom Brady of spellers. (I almost said the Joan Sutherland and Beverly Sills of spellers.) Frankly, I think it also helped that I have been in front of an audience for so much of my adult life, so that part of it posed no problem for me (nor for Walter.) I think some of the other spellers were much more self conscious about that and it probably was a very real factor in the elimination of several teams.
We spelled for quite awhile before the first team finally fell – and spelled a long long time before finally whittling down the field to four teams. . . at which point we took a brief intermission and then went into the semi-final round. That went on for quite awhile before finally one team fell – and then the defending champs, complete with their matching shirts from Case/New Holland . . . until it was just Syzygy and the Literacy Council Volunteers. At that point, I actually leaned over to Walter and Darryl and said that since the other teams were faithful volunteers of the organization for which this event was being held, it would be a nice gesture for us to just give them the crown in honor of their good work. Darryl looked at me like I should be wearing a strait jacket, and even warm-hearted, peace-loving Walter didn’t seem to like that idea. And although it sounds like a very saintly suggestion to have made, I’m sure at least a little bit of my reasoning was that it would feel better to give away the crown than to lose it fair and square by being outspelled, which seemed to me like the most likely outcome of all this.
By the way, halfway through the semi-finals, the words in the manual which we all studied were completely exhausted and at that point they took out an entirely different spelling manual, which we had NOT studied. . . and that’s when it became far scarier. Fortunately, one of the words we got at that point was pharyngologist – a doctor of the voice box – and I knew that word from my work as a voice teacher. And the other words we were given in these uncharted waters were known by Darryl and Walter without breaking a sweat.
So at last, after a long and exciting and exhausting evening, it was down to two teams. We spelled something right – I have long since forgotten what – and the other team missed a word – and we needed to spell the next word correctly in order to win. The word was lamacchia. . . not in the American Heritage College Dictionary. . . but Walter knew it . . . spelled it . . . and we were the champions.
The place erupts in applause, our arms go above our heads in victory as though we have just won the Super Bowl – which in local spelling circles we had – we shake hands with our formidable runners-up – we’re presented with a plaque and gift cards to Barnes and Noble – and Walter’s wife Lynn once again got out her cell phone to call Kathy (who was out of town with friends) as she had at various points in the evening to give her updates, and shared with her the stunning news. And one of the most indelible memories I have of that night is of the dumbstruck “you’re never going to believe this” look that Lynn had on her face as she broke the news to my wife. The expression she had on her face was what all of us were thinking and feeling in spades. . . and we had to keep pinching ourselves to believe it was true.
And actually one of the weirdest things about the triumph was that the only people on the planet who could really begin to appreciate the accomplishment were the people who were in that room that night. It wasn’t the Super Bowl- American Idol- or even Jeopardy- but it also wasn’t a joke. It was a very significant accomplishment and achievement, even if the rest of the world couldn’t begin to grasp it. That was especially driven home to me the next morning at church when Pastor Jeff dutifully announced our triumph, but in a rather jokey way as though one of the ladies of the church had the winning blueberry pie at the county fair. I remember gritting my teeth and wishing that Jeff had been there in order to know just what this was really all about.
Fast forward to Friday night and the 2007 Racine County Spelling Competition . . . . and the winning team, once again, was Syzygy! ! ! And taking my place (since I had to be at NATS) was none other than Jeff Barrow. So I’m guessing now that his announcement tomorrow morning at church will have a little different ring to it. Because now he knows what this is about; he has been to the mountaintop! Pictured above: Darryl, Jeff, and Walter in mid-competition …. looking very tense. Pictured below, left to right: Jeff, Walter, and Darryl – the new champs!
pictured below: the picture of Syzygy that was printed in the Racine Journal Times after our victory. Left to right- Darryl Sturino, our captain – Walter Hermanns, who spelled the word that won us the title – and GB, who was nothing more than a good parrot. And notice his untucked white turtleneck. I did that on purpose so people could be certain that it was really me.