In the sixth grade I could stand in my back yard and make fifty straight free throws, but I was barely five feet tall and my feet were already bigger than my dad’s and I didn’t move around very well. Which is why on the playground no one passed the basketball to me and when they finally did I was so surprised I didn’t know what to do with it. Six years later I would make fifteen three-pointers in a single game on the way to 51 total points, but obviously in the sixth grade no one knew that.
On many sunset evenings I would run pass patterns in the front yard and my dad would throw the football to me over and over until I never let it hit the ground. “If you can touch it you can catch it,” he would say. But at school I was short and slow on my clown feet and no one would throw me the ball. The only time they did I scored a touchdown, but somehow no one ever remembered that.
If I had known it was possible I would have sold my soul to be Keith. Keith was the fastest human in our school and possibly the entire city of elementary schools, and like Superman he could score a touchdown every time he touched the ball. He could pour shots into the hoop like Magic Johnson. He could destroy you in kickball, in foursquare, in anything. All I wanted in the world was to be like him.
The situation was different in the classroom. In there I was dominant, or rather co-dominant along with my friend Kevin. It didn’t matter what subject it was, the two of us always finished projects first and tests first and read the assigned chapter first and then sat around wondering what was taking everyone else so long. If there had been teams to pick, we would have been captains, and if there had been a ball to hog, it would have been ours. If you scored lower than the 99th percentile in any subject on the CAT test, you melted from the scorching shame.
I wanted to believe I had a leg up on Kevin because we made the same grades but I was more social than him. Or not so much social as wanted to be social. I was shy but I didn’t want to be shy. Kevin was a vastly different animal. He didn’t listen to music. He didn’t like girls. I had a huge crush on this girl named Gigi ever since I saw her on the cafeteria stage dancing to Billy Joel. She had brown hair and green eyes and put her hands on her side-thrust hips when she talked to you. She had attitude. I knew she wanted to go around with me but that attitude was intimidating so I never asked her. Still, I talked to her every day while Kevin read the extra credit chapter. When I asked him why didn’t he listen to music or talk to girls, he would say, “A Jedi craves not these things.”
As much as I wanted it, I knew I didn’t really have a leg up on Kevin. He was just as smart as me. For that matter, Keith’s grades were almost as good as ours. And even though we were all close friends, along with Jason and Butch and plenty of others in the neighborhood, there was an unspoken pecking order. Keith, being both smart and athletic, was unquestionably at the top. Jason lived in Country Club so he had votes for second place, as did Butch, who was friends with all the girls and whose parents were cool enough to own a Datsun 280ZX. Kevin and I were a bit lower, but to be honest everything below Keith was kind of hazy, and one big victory could propel any of us skyward. And finally in the middle of the sixth grade I found my chance: the Spelling Bee.
One of my mom’s favorite stories is how I took to reading at an early age. I was prone to picking up books and trying to figure out what they meant and learned my first words when I was three. By the time I started kindergarten I was already reading comfortably, or so the story goes, and my mom always gets a twinkle in her eye when she tells that part.
So it was understood by everyone in our class that I would win the school Spelling Bee. It wasn’t in doubt. The bigger question was if I would win the city and regional competitions and go onto the national finals. I was that good.
Every afternoon, in the days leading up to the Bee, my mom picked up Words of the Champions and grilled me for hours. We spent little time with the first round words because I could spell those in my sleep. The grunt work was in the second round words, and third round words were for heavy lifters. School Bees, we understood, rarely made it to the third round words, but we studied them anyway. The word we loved the most was dirigisme, which I’ve never forgotten how to spell, though I never knew what it meant until just this year.
On the day of the school Spelling Bee, everyone congratulated me ahead of time. Keith especially had little doubt. “You got this, man,” he would say. He knew what a star looked like because he was always that guy on the field. But today was my day and that cafeteria stage was my field, my court, my 18th hole green.
My mom and I suffered through a mostly contentious relationship back then. It was rare to see her smile, but this day was different. She knew how much work we had put in and was ready to see it pay off. There were maybe thirty of us kids who filed on stage and found our chairs. I looked out at the crowd, seventy-five parents and teachers, and found my mom among them. She smiled. I knew this time, finally, I would make her proud. I couldn’t wait for the Bee to begin.
Especially when the emcee of the event announced that this year’s competition would consist of only first round words. I never found out why. But as murmurs and whispers passed over the crowd, I became even more confident. First round words were for babies.
I was always a shy kid, so when it was my turn to approach the microphone my heart was galloping in my chest. But the training paid off. I easily knew how to spell that first word and plenty of words after, and gradually the number of kids on the stage dwindled. Every time someone made a mistake, the emcee would ring a bell, like the kind you touch when you’re waiting at a counter.
That tinny ring was the sound of death.
Eventually there were only four or five of us left. I was one. Kevin was one. Keith was one. Every time I answered another word correctly, Keith would give a knowing nod, silently cheering me on. Upon each visit to the microphone I had become more emboldened and was beginning to enjoy the home stretch. My victory lap. This is what it feels like to not be scared all the time, I thought. Finally. Because even though I had always been too shy to ever tell anyone, I knew one day I would overcome my fear and show my real self to the world. This day was the first step. The next could be the city Spelling Bee, and who knew what might happen after that?
I approached the microphone. I could see my mom in the audience. My heart was no longer galloping. The emcee read a word and I knew it immediately, another baby word. She read the word to me and somehow I thought of green stalks reaching toward the sky, of cobs spilling forth from them, I thought of that darkish yellow color you see in the 64-pack of crayons, the one with the sharpener in the back. The word rhymed with haze and blaze and faze and raze, but I wasn’t about to be fooled, because no word in the Bee could possibly be that easy. After all those hours of studying there was no way I would be presented with a word of only four letters, so rather than be outsmarted I confidently spelled the word I saw in my head, a word with five letters, a word like this:
I was already walking back to my seat when I heard the sound, the death sound.
I looked into the crowd and found my mother and the look of anguish was almost too much to take. I left the stage and lurched toward a seat below, my head swimming, fuzzy, barely able to see anything because I was in a daze.
It only occurred to me later that I could have asked for a definition because “daze” is a homophone that shares its sound with the word “days.” Had I asked for a definition I would have immediately known how to spell it, because of course I knew what “daze” meant. I don’t know what the hell I thought “daize” was. All I know is I was too confident and too proud, I was looking to run before I first caught the ball, so I heard “daze” and I thought “maize” and I did not win the Spelling Bee.
My mom was gracious and consoled me even though I didn’t win. My friends were kind enough about it. Everyone was kind. But I knew, like they all knew, that I had blown my chance to win, had blown my chance to climb higher in the pecking order, and it was a bitter pill I could not swallow for a long time afterward.
I don’t remember what the winning word was, or how he fared in the city Bee, but I do remember Keith looking at me with a half grin on his face, almost embarrassed to be the last man standing in this long walk, the winner again, and me barely able to see him, my head lost in a white, shapeless daze.