Pin It We'd been sitting in the elementary school cafeteria for almost two hours, and my butt was slowly growing numb to the too-small plastic chair that it was perched upon. I had stopped feeling the little metal thingamabobs that had been digging into my flesh around thirty minutes ago, which I suppose could be considered a good thing. There were only two girls on the stage now; Autumn had lost out in round number sixteen or something like that and had come to sit beside me, Fourth Place Winner in the Fifth Grade Spelling Bee.
Some might look at it as losing; I was too proud for that. Every time she spelled a word, she radiated confidence. She tossed back that blond ponytail and rushed headlong into the dialogue of the letters, knowing they were right, not really concerned if they weren't. She missed "significant," starting it with a "c" instead of the requisite "s." With a shrug and a smile, she accepted her defeat gracefully and made her way down to me amidst the applause that accompanied every such battle lost.
But the last two girls...they just wouldn't give up. Back and forth they went, spelling correctly all words given them. We all kind of knew who was going to win: M. She was, if there was such a thing, the valedictorian of the elementary school. She was a nice girl, but, as one of my friends had once described her, she was Angela of the Rugrats in the flesh. Accustomed to getting her own way. Accustomed to winning. Accustomed to being first.
She was accustomed.
We all sat back, and waited for her to win.
I wasn't familiar with the other girl. J. Her mother wasn't present--she had to work. I felt a little sorry for J. We lived in one of those "upper middle class" areas where it wasn't the norm for mothers to not be present at functions like this, and while, as a former latch-key kid and a mother who had struggled with working through both of her children's babyhoods, I well-understood the necessity, I felt badly for J. And for her mother, because I feel certain she would have given anything to have been there.
It was J's turn to spell a word. She began to spell, started to choke, wheezed phlegmatically and somewhat inarticulately over the first letter, and then continued. The judges looked at each sorrowfully for a long moment. The head judge started to speak. "I'm sorry...that is incorrect...the correct spelling is 's---"
A sharp gasp went up around the room, my own included. The very same thing had happened earlier. J was apparently suffering from fairly potent allergies, and had a tendency to speak through sputum--not a very pleasant occurrence, but still. I guess you had to make allowances. At the beginning of the bee, when rules were being read, the head judge had declared the bee an "oral and written bee," referring to the white board placards each contestant possessed. It wasn't how bees were conducted in my day, I remembered thinking, but fairly cool, considering different learning styles and how much more comfortable many people were writing words down and seeing them in print. All of the kids were using the placards to first write their words and then read the letters off to the judges. Earlier, when J had mumbled something unintelligible, the judges had viewed her placard, deemed the word correctly spelled, and that was it. She was safe.
Before I knew it, I was rising to my feet. The judge was blathering something about how M needed to spell two words correctly in order to win the bee, but my hand was shooting into the air. I could feel a hot blush staining my cheeks. "I'd like to make an appeal. Can I appeal that decision?"
There was another gasp from somewhere to my left, M's mother, I was sure. An uncomfortable silence as the table of four judges stared at me, along with the entire fourth and fifth grade, and all of their teachers. And everyone's parents. And then the judges started shifting papers around.
"Ummm....sure. Yes, of course."
I started walking toward the table. "I'd like to appeal that on basis of J choking on phlegm as she was spelling her word, and also on basis of the same thing occurring earlier in the bee with a different outcome. I feel certain if her mother was here she would do the same thing." Despite my shaking hands, my voice was strong, and carried over the cafeteria. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw to my right the fifth grade teachers nodding and smiling encouragingly. I reached the table. "I feel if you checked her placard, as you did earlier, you would see that the word is spelled correctly."
The judges were skimming the rules sheet. "Well, it is an oral bee, so it really doesn't matter what she has written on her placard. It clearly states here that if you retrace your letters, and re-spell something incorrectly or differently, you are disqualified," the head judge stated impassively.
The principal looked conflicted, as did a couple of the other judges. "Let's confer about it," she suggested. "This is a tough thing."
"That's all I ask."
I started to make my way back to my seat. On the way I was startled when a little girl came up and flung her arms around my waist. "Thank you," she murmured. "That wasn't fair." I hugged her back.
"We'll just have to wait and see what happens," I told her, "they have rules they have to follow."
The principal came to me around fifteen minutes later. "Thank you for doing that, Lori. It needed to be done, and I know it wasn't easy."
I shrugged off her words. I didn't want thanks. "Bottom line, the judges have decided that they have to uphold their decision. They probably shouldn't have passed her through the first time she choked on her letters and they reviewed her placard, honestly, but they did."
She kept talking for a few more minutes in this vein, her expression tortured. I finally put her out of her misery. "It's okay; I understand completely. Rules are rules. I just couldn't let J feel too alone up there, you know?"
The principal smiled. "I know. Thanks for that."
The bee resumed. M missed her first word (intentionally? I've always wondered) and they continued their back and forth for another ten minutes or so until J finally succumbed to the inevitable. M triumphed, as she was accustomed to doing.
J walked out, though, with a smile on her face. It was a hard-fought victory for M. J didn't make it easy, and I was as proud as someone else's mother could be at her dignity in defeat.