Friday, May 18, 2007 | I’ve stayed out of jail and I’ve even written books that have been well reviewed in The New York Times. But neither that nor editing a city newspaper brought my father so much pride as when I had a good day in the fourth grade. I won the North Carolina state Spelling Bee, of all things, by correctly spelling the word “parallel.”
My father — a beloved Southern Baptist minister who lived to be 101 years old — carried a yellowed clipping in his wallet with my mug shot and the headline: “Lone Boy Beats Nine Girls.” When he met my bride-to-be Judith, he took her aside for a walk in the piney woods of Carolina and said, “There are two things you should know about my son that he probably has not told you.” (Judith recalls shuddering at his ominous, confiding tone.) One thing he told her was that I could read store signs from the back of his bicycle when I was three years old. The other was that I won the statewide spelling bee in which I had represented Fred A. Olds School in Raleigh.
Those nail-biting finals crossed my mind as I read about preparations for the 2007 national spelling bee in Washington, D.C. on Memorial Day weekend. Youngsters prepare like gladiators for this annual televised showdown of smarts, instinct and nerve.
The national spelling bee was launched with nine contestants in 1925, and the winning word was “gladiolus.” In the 1930s, while I was struggling to master “parallel,” the championship words included: “fracas,” “knack,” and “promiscuous” — a word that my Southern Baptist mother would never have allowed to cross my lips.
In the 21st century, the finals’ word lists are devilishly tricky — hard to pronounce, hard to spell and not heard in many households: “pococurante” (pO-co-coo-RAN-te) in 2003; “autochthonous” (oh-TAK-then-ous) in 2004; “appoggiatura” (a-PAJ-eh-TOOR-a) in 2005 (when the winner was Anurag Kashyap, then 13, of Poway.) Last year, the crowning word was “ursprache” (OOR-SHPRA-ke.) Having been to the dictionary, I can tell you those words mean “apathetic,” “aboriginal,” “a rhythmically strong, dissonant grace note … resolving to a principal harmonic tone” and “a reconstructed, hypothetical parent language — such as Proto-Germanic.” I have not yet worked them into casual conversation.
In that long ago spelling bee I won, the word “parallel” earned me a dictionary and my father’s pride. These days, contestants vie for $42,000 and a lot of media attention.
My father appreciated words — he read the Bible in English, Greek and Hebrew. Besides writing weekly sermons, he put four of us kids through college by writing for the Raleigh News and Observer for 10 cents a column inch. And then there were his diaries — fierce, gossipy, newsy journals that covered small town North Carolina life and family revelations for more than 70 years.
It is in reading his diaries now that I am learning of his pride in the spelling bees.