Of Lingerie and Spelling Bees

by admin on February 10, 2016

My laptop computer with Chessbase is in the repair shop at the moment, so I can’t upload chess diagrams. So I’ll just go off-topic completely.

This morning as I was jogging I passed a hand-lettered sign that said “<– Lingerie.” It isn’t all that often one encounters a handmade lingerie sign on the street, but then I realized it was Valentine’s Day, and perhaps lingerie is the gift one gives to a woman when one is too cool to give flowers.

Anyway, that word and I have a history. In sixth grade I was my school spelling champion and went to the state spelling bee, where I flopped in the second round. The next year I skipped a grade and went to eighth grade. It would be my last chance to make the state spelling bee and redeem myself for failing the previous year.

But I had competition — a blonde, nerdy seventh-grader named Andrea Neal, who was a good friend of my sister. The moderator of the school spelling bee was Mrs. Van Riper, the middle school English teacher, who I think was the only teacher I ever had who didn’t like me. (I was a straight-A student, so I was always very popular with my teachers.)

My diary is very terse about the competition. On March 10, 1971, I wrote, “Andrea Neal won the school spelling bee, missing only one word. I missed five for second.” As you can see, she didn’t need any help to beat me.

Nevertheless, she got some help. I still remember that one of the words Mrs. Van Riper asked me to spell was “lingerie.” I think she must have seen this word on the list and saved it for me. This is a darned-if-you-do-and-darned-if-you-don’t word if you’re a twelve-year-old boy. If you know how to spell it, how come you know this word? What have you been reading? On the other hand, if you don’t know, well, say bye-bye to the state spelling bee.

I didn’t know the word. In fact, I didn’t have the faintest clue. I don’t think I had ever heard somebody pronounce the word in my life. It’s possible that I had seen it, perhaps in the department store when shopping with my mother, but I had no idea of the pronunciation. I did know some French at this point and it sounded vaguely French, but even that isn’t a very good clue because I think that American pronunciation differs a good deal from the French.

In the end I took a horrible, multiply incorrect guess at it, something like “l-o-n-g-e-r-a-y,” and I’m sure that Mrs. Van Riper got her chuckle. As I said, Andrea would have won anyway. I know that I also misspelled “crustacean,” and I don’t know what the other three words I allegedly misspelled were. I was a little bit skeptical that I had misspelled that many, but how can I dispute the teacher? Maybe she added the total number of wrong letters.

The following year, when Andrea was in eighth grade and I was already in high school and ineligible for spelling bees, she not only won the school spelling bee, she won the state and got the chance to travel to Washington, DC, for the national spelling bee. My sister went with her and they had a great time. Andrea went on to have a distinguished career as a newspaper journalist for the Indianapolis Star, which ironically was the paper that sponsored the state spelling bee. I’m sure she had many opportunities to put her spelling skills to good use. As for me, I went on to become a mathematician, a discipline where I did not have to write about lingerie or crustaceans very often.

P.S. Just to show I had my priorities right even back then, my entry for March 13, three days after the spelling bee, reads, “I beat Daddy in chess for the first time this month and the sixth this year.”

P.P.S. Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone!

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Randy February 14, 2016 at 12:20 pm

Happy Valentine‚Äôs Day! I’m starting a chess blog and was looking for inspiration. Thanks.

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