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I messed up a seventh-grade word in the spelling bee

Participants from Long Island schools wait anxiously in

Participants from Long Island schools wait anxiously in their seats at the Hofstra Long Island Regional Spelling Bee. (Feb. 24, 2013) Photo Credit: Steve Pfost

Bee Week is here! This is not a cause for alarm; rather it's a reason to be excited. This the week of the 2015 Scripps National Spelling Bee. The final round will be televised live on Thursday from a convention center outside Washington, D.C.

I always watch with a pang of regret. Years ago when I was 10, I thought I had a shot, but a teacher at P.S. 188 in Bayside, Queens, unwittingly destroyed my dreams of spelling words on a national platform.

The unfortunate event took place in the 1970s. Although I was a very shy kid, I was willing to put my spelling prowess on display. I knew I was good, so standing up in front of a crowd to spell words didn't faze me.

After competing in preliminary rounds in classrooms, I advanced to the schoolwide bee, a precursor to a citywide competition. This was a big event in the school auditorium. As students and teachers filed in, participants chatted among ourselves, some checking a word study guide distributed a few weeks earlier.

As I recall, the words in the guide were organized from easy to difficult and ranged from fifth-grade level to seventh-grade level. I was a fifth-grader, but I had skipped third grade, so I was a year younger than my classmates.

My teacher, a bespectacled, white-haired gentleman, was quite busy during the pre-bee hoopla. There were several people talking to him as he simultaneously tried to seat children, arrange papers on his podium and test out the microphone. But I had to talk to him. I had a problem. A Big One.

There was one word in the guide that was 100 percent unfamiliar to me. I had to learn how it was pronounced and what it meant, on the off chance that I was unlucky enough to be asked to spell it. The word was "choir." I had no idea how to say it, let alone pronounce it.

The teacher, flustered amid activity, shooed me away. I persisted. Finally, in exasperation, he said, "This is a seventh-grade word. You do not have to know it. You're a fifth-grader. They won't ask you to spell it." End of discussion.

The bee began. The second word I got was CHOIR. That's right. I stood there, shocked, confused, scared.

I said to myself, "Quire? What's THAT?"

I had never heard the word before. Maybe I'd never come across it because I came from a non-religious Jewish family. Who knows? But I stood there, frozen, knowing the bee was about to end for me.

I gave it a go and said, "Q-U-I-R-E."

Nope -- unless they were talking about a set of 24 uniform sheets of paper or a section of printed leaves in proper sequence after folding. They were not. I had to sit down.

I was humiliated, but somehow stopped myself from bursting into tears and/or punching the teacher in the face. I shot a glance his way, but he was still deeply involved in papers. He looked up briefly and gave me a blank look. My frustration didn't appear to register with him. He didn't appear to remember our earlier conversation about this very word. He said nothing to me; I don't think my unhappiness and disappointment even registered on his radar.

Nowadays, kids have myriad ways to find useful information. Had this incident taken place today, I would have gotten a definition and an audio pronunciation from the Internet.

Come to think of it, I'm surprised spelling bees are still held. With all the technology at kids' fingertips, you'd think bees would have gone by the wayside. I'm glad they're still around to challenge young minds. Good luck and safe travels to all the Scripps p-a-r-t-i-c-i-p-a-n-t-s!

Reader Robin Ames lives in Coram.

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