In a world savage enough to create Ultimate Fighting, a spelling bee might seem almost absurdly tame by comparison, roughly akin to a canasta tournament in an old folk’s home. But one visit to the Racine Literacy Council’s annual spelling bee is all it would take to correct this misunderstanding. This may be a competition of brain rather than brawn, but make no mistake – – – it is fought with fierce determination. Indeed, most of the spellers have an intensity which makes Brett Favre look like Bambi’s Mother. All you have to do is look at the picture of Syzygy immediately after winning its first title two years ago to see what this competition does to people. Even Walter Hermanns, who’s more Gandhi-like than Gandhi himself, carried on like Hulk Hogan when he won Wrestlemania. And honestly, as someone lucky enough to ride those impressive coattails to victory, I can say that it felt like that kind of triumph. And I know Darryl Sturino, our fearless general, was probably the most thrilled of all.
I had a conflict with last year’s spelling bee, so Walter and Darryl needed a third person to fill out their team – and although he wants the world to think otherwise, Jeff Barrow was the perfect choice because he is a world-class wordsmith. He does two crossword puzzles every morning of his life, he manhandles anyone foolish enough to oppose him in Scabble, and of course he spends quite a lot of time putting words together in his work as a pastor. So even though he might paint himself as the basketball playing country bumpkin from rural Montana, he is a far more formidable speller than I will ever be – and together the three of them were like Roger Federer on the grass of Wimbledon as they swept to Title #2 and scarcely broke a sweat as they did it. (Our victory the year before was much harder fought.)
It was probably my personal misfortune but the team’s good fortune that once again I had a calendar conflict with the spelling bee (a recital at Carthage for which I was accompanist) – so it was Darryl, Walter and Jeff who bravely strode into the fray (I’m trying to use fancy words here) in an effort to win three titles in a row. . . an accomplishment roughly akin to what the Green Bay Packers did with a guy named Bart Starr at the helm. Sad as I was to not be able to compete, at least my conflicting obligation was in town (my conflict last year took me all the way to Appleton, and I had to be content with a phone call from Kate Barrow, informing me of my teammate’s victory). In fact, I promised my teammates that I would play Rachel and Aileen’s accompaniments with especially brisk tempos so I could get out the door just that much quicker in order to get to the spelling bee in time to cheer them on to Victory #3. Unfortunately, most of the piano parts were hard – and two of them I had to transpose into different keys – so I couldn’t have raced through any of the piano parts even if I’d wanted to.
Anyway, I was out the door at about 8:30 and on my way to the ROMA Lodge on the north side of Racine – almost a half hour drive – and since the spelling bee itself started at 7, I knew there was every chance that it would be all over. The best possible scenario would be that I would get there just in time to see Darryl, Walter and Jeff hoisted up on their well wisher’s shoulders as the crowd cheered. That would have been great. The worst thing would have been to get there only to see two remaining teams up front, in their final head-to- head, and have Syzygy be notably absent from the stage. As it turns out, I got there just in time for the evening’s second intermission . . . and my comrades once again had fought magnificently into the final showdown. There had been nine teams at the beginning and most of them hung in there valiantly (Jeff said in a recent radio interview that it seems like most teams blow it not with mis-spelling but rather mis-speaking, and I think he’s right.) but eventually there were only two teams left standing: Syzygy and a group of three people (I believe a mother, father, and son- although I could be wrong) calling themselves Stellar Spellers. At least one of them was a tutor for the Racine Literacy Council (the sponsor of the bee and the fortunate recipient of all money raised from the event) – which brought to mind the incredibly tough team we faced two years ago. You gotta watch out for those literacy tutors- they are the spelling equivalent of the world’s toughest bouncer.
And indeed, the Stellar Spellers proved to be formidable foes in every way . . . not only impeccably prepared (they had really done their homework) but also completely unflappable. There was something about the way they each walked to that mic and rattled off the words that made it seem like Mr. Spock and his two parents had somehow entered the contest. But Syzygy is not your run of the mill team and they stayed right with them, not blinking even once. By the way, what is incredibly exciting / awful about the final round is that it’s just two teams, so every other word comes back to you . . . unlike the earliest rounds when you spell a word correctly and then get to sit there while the other eight teams each do their thing. (Honestly, the pacing is leisurely enough that I thought about bringing test papers along to correct- but I figured Darryl would not have looked kindly on that.) This is back and forth, back and forth, back and forth – like two volleyers at the net – and you know that someone has to eventually win the point, but you just don’t know who it will be or what will ultimately be the difference. I was a basket case- – – every bit as much as when I was watching my students at NATS last weekend – – – and I was actually relieved / though also terrified / when the moderator of the bee, Cindy Strathman, finally announced that time was drawing short and they needed to discard the manual which all of the teams had been given for their prep and break out an entirely different book with entirely different words. This point was never even reached last year, so quick was Syzygy’s victory – but two years ago they had to do this – and that’s when teams start toppling like trees. But you don’t get to win just by other teams falling – You have to spell the last word correctly in order to claim the crown. . .
Well, Cindy Strathman may be a member of Holy Communion Lutheran Church (where all four teammates are members and three of us are current or former staff) but that certainly didn’t stop her from tossing a hand grenade at us in the form of this word: bradyseism (bray dee SIGH ih zim) which apparently has something to do with shifting plates in the earth’s crust. It turns out that Jeff actually wrote the word correctly on his little sheet of paper, but was far from absolutely certain – and after frantic consultation amongst the three, a spelling was offered that was not quite correct…. and for the first time in its history, Syzygy heard directed at itself (and not at an opponent) the clown’s horn sound which signals that a team has misspelled the word. But Stellar Spellers had to spell their next word correctly or the battle would continue on. Cindy apparently has a soft spot in her heart for tutors or maybe she admires anyone of Indian descent or maybe just likes to hear the sound of three grown men crying – – – but for some ultimately unknown reason, she tossed a softball to Stellar Spellers: oculargyric. (aw cue ler JEYE rick) and they hit it out of the park. And I knew they would even before the dad of the team had reached the mic because even I knew how to spell that word. . . as did all of my teammates. But it mattered not, and as suddenly as that the Syzygy’s Three-peat dissolved to dust. And although it was the three of them who were up there – the three of them who had tirelessly prepared – the three of them who had brought themselves to that point . . . I was amazed at how much this disappointment and defeat felt like OURS instead of THEIRS.
I have to applaud my teammates for their graciousness in defeat . . . but I will tell you right now that I sat there at the back of the room with my finger nails digging into my palms, and found myself unable to applaud for the winners – until it occurred to me that there might be a few eyes glancing my direction…. at which point I painted a completely fake smile on my face (and probably rolled my eyes, which I believe constitutes oculargyric motion!) and delicately patted my hands together the way the runners-up do at all the pageants, but in my heart of hearts I wanted nothing more than to wave a magic wand and turn time backwards and stick Stellar Spellers with our word to see what they would have done with it. But sad to say, no such magic wand exists . . . nor is this the kind of competition where it’s good form to raise protests about the results, especially when you’re two-time champs going for your third title. This is just one of those bitter pills one has to swallow, even if it’s the size of a toaster and covered with tabasco sauce. You swallow it and you go on . . .
So there it is . . . the agony of defeat. . . but the satisfaction of a worthy effort . . . and the relief that at least the loss occurred at the hands of superb opponents and not because of a dumb error . . . And there is always 2009…
I know I have carried on long enough, but I have to mention a little moment of indignity which I can’t stop thinking about. At the end of the evening, as someone from the Racine Literacy Council was thanking everyone for coming and congratulating all of the participating teams, she looked over towards Darryl, Walter and Jeff and said “and how about another big round of applause for our runner ups, Synergy!” A hem. . . It’s Syzygy, and it’s one of Walter’s favorite words. It means when three celestial bodies such as the earth, moon, and sun lie in perfect alignment. And until 9:35 Friday night, the team lived up to its name. And I have a feeling that it will again.
P.S. – In the highly unlikely event that you want to learn still more about Syzygy and our first two victories, you can visit my blog entry from November 3, 2007 . . . . and the photo I mentioned in today’s blog entry can be seen on my F & F page (that stands for Friends and Family.)
pictured above: Syzygy during the waning moments of the spelling bee. . . left to right, Darryl, Jeff, and Walter –