The Terrible Poem Breakdown series looks at terrible poems written by earnest but talentless poets. The only criteria is that the poems cannot be willfully bad and that the poets must be eager to have their poems critiqued.
The usual disclaimer: I am not a poet or a critic of poetry, and I am not qualified to comment on any of the poem’s formal qualities. I read only for content and the effect the poem has on me, as a reader. Off we go!
The worst thing I’ve ever done? Well, friend,
The time I threw the spelling bee comes to mind.
It sounds like a joke—a skinny cigarette of a kid among hardcore gamblers,
A John Hughes character: in a fedora, voice cracking.
That’s not this story.
I was a champion of sorts, a spelling wunderkind,
A big fish in a small pond.
These were not the ESPN bees, with immigrant kids memorizing the dictionary to get a taste of glory for themselves or their parents.
Nope. This was rural Wisconsin, among the farmers and factory workers who
Didn’t give a shit. I just had a knack for it: seven victories in a row.
Kids started grumbling in the halls. Why do we even bother? We know who will win.
I felt self-conscious. Why me?
Why was I the smart one? Why not the cool one?
Where were the girls?
But I knew where: Out drinking PBR and MGD with guys two years older than me, or hanging out with the rougher crowd in my class.
It didn’t matter where. NOT WITH ME. Not with the speller. That’s what mattered.
My teacher Miss Aschenbrenner saw this happening and tried to save me from myself.
I only saw her ambition. This was her chance. A trip to state, maybe nationals!
I was her ticket and I didn’t like it.
My mind was made up: I would take a dive.
End it before I got too far.
No need to practice after school.
No pressure going against real competition. But how?
Ever throw a bee? It’s not easy to pull it off.
The first five rounds presented no chance.
How could I misspell children? Or squirrel? Or newspaper? These were words I’d been spelling correctly since first grade.
Meanwhile my classmates were dropping like flies. Then it came:
Here it was! I could feign hastiness, a little carelessness, a slip of the tongue.
C-o-f-f-e-p-o-t. Done! One e! Genius!
I awaited the blessed release. But my teacher wasn’t saying anything.
She looked at her page. Looked up at me. Stared. No one—to this day—has ever looked through me the way Nancy Aschenbrenner looked through me at that moment. I was unpeeled, my scheme a disaster.
Still she stared. I put on a lying face.
That is correct, she said, staring into my soul.
Warning me. Giving me another chance.
Don’t do this. Don’t let them get to you. Don’t let them win.
I knew what she was doing—and I resented her for it.
Others weren’t burdened by her expectations!
No one else shouldered this load!
Who else had to leave in order not to disappoint a frustrated teacher?
It angered me to the point of doing something shameful.
My turn came around again.
Another obvious word came my way.
A word to hit out of the park.
“Miss Aschenbrenner!” I cried. “I think I spelled coffeepot wrong!”
She made a sound in her throat, a kind of grunt, a moan deep in her chest, her lips tight.
Chomping down on fury.
You…. may… sit… down… she said.
We were through. I hated her for it. I’m sure she hated me too.
And for years I told myself it was because of her silly ambition and how I didn’t want to be her puppet.
That was the standard part of the story—how she wrote fiction in the summer, none of it published, how I was a little glimpse of glory.
This too was a lie. I doubt she cared. Her self-worth wasn’t dependent on me.
It was all about me.
And this is the worst. I embarrassed someone who was trying to help me.
A small sin, sure—it’s not even clear that anyone else in the room noticed our little morality play.
But that was the turning point. That started it all.
Decades of failure, underachieving, self-defeat.
That was when I let others tell me how I should view myself. And my fear of others—fear of confrontation, fear of standing out, fear of success—haunts me to this day.
I’d rather hurt someone who’s trying to help me
If it means I can stay in my little cave of popularity and fear of failure.
And now that there’s no one left, no dances to attend, no sports, no Friday nights at the Pizza Hut with a girl who might let me kiss her good night if her dad’s not watching the driveway from the kitchen window,
Now that it’s just me and the past and a predictable future,
I look back at the origins of failure and think Nancy Aschenbrenner did see it all. She knew then it was a mistake, it was my mistake, it was what I would live with for years.
I would live, that is, with myself, and that was what I deserved.
She said nothing.
She knew my punishment was already there:
My punishment was me.
Oh, Jesus, how depressing can it get?
Here’s what I like about this poem: it’s set in Wisconsin. Here’s what I don’t like: everything else!
This poor soul, throwing a spelling bee, doomed to years of failure. Tiny failure leading to enormous wasted life – could anything be bleaker?
Where is the uplift? Where’s the soaring spirit? Where’s the hope?
Argh. This poem might ruin my holiday season. Nancy Aschenbrenner, I hope you are somewhere enjoying life. I hope your stories were all published. I hope you wrote one about a little kid who tried to throw a spelling bee, and you merely raised your eyebrows and shrugged it off and went home to your husband and kids and had a nice dinner that night.
Thanks as usual to the poet who was a good sport and agreed to submit the poem etc. etc. etc.
Come on, people! A little more light! A little more cheer!