This is the story of a young man who was an excellent speller. He won seven spelling bees in a row, dominating the competition year after year after year. And then, in the eighth grade, with a trip to regionals (and state! and nationals!) on the line, this champion lost for the first time in his life, shocking the town.
How could this happen? How did he stumble?
Readers, I have some tough news to deliver. A difficult set of truths.
The Eighth Grade Spelling Bee of Cadbridge, Wisconsin, in the Year of Our Lord 1984, was fixed. Completely rigged. The boy, the potential champion, lost on purpose. For reasons that remained murky for years, he threw the bee.
I know because I was that boy.
It was the worst thing I ever did. But not for the reasons you might expect.
As regular readers know, I’ve been posting a series called A History of Jacke in 100 Objects. These short stories are fictional versions of things that have happened to me. Like most fiction, they’re based on real-life experiences and drawn from people I’ve known, though the characters are typically exaggerations, or composites, or both.
The stories have been popular, and I’ve been pleased by how wide their appeal has been. That was my intention, of course – not just to share with those who were there, but to express something recognizable to those who were not. So I’m grateful when people I’ve never met tell me they knew coaches like the ones in #1 – The Padlock. Or that they’ve felt the same way as the father in #8 – The Burger Car. Or that they were inspired by the teacher’s triumph in #10 – The Spitwad. Even the ones who say they smiled at my battle with Jerry Seinfeld in #3 – The Blood Cake.
One post in particular, #7 – The Keyboard, about a young boy and his burnt-out music teacher, seems to have touched a nerve. And it has led to a couple of follow-up moments that left me shaking my head with wonder.
The first was from a music teacher who, like the narrator, was given a paper keyboard on which to practice as a young child:
Very, very moving, Jacke, and indirectly very nostalgic for me too. When we lived in Hong Kong in the 50s my parents tried to persuade a Russian piano teacher to take me on when I was four, again even though we didn’t have a piano. Too young, she assured my parents; instead, a dummy keyboard made from black and white paper strips glued to a cheap table was advised, on which I practised for a few months. Then we went abroad.
Fifteen months or so later we returned from the UK, and I was interviewed again and allowed to actually play on a real piano. Said teacher was amazed. “Why didn’t you bring him to me a year ago?” Clearly a few thousand miles was no bar to starting lessons properly. I haven’t looked back, and still teach and accompany now six decades on. Luckily for my students, I’m no Miss Steiner in my approach to pedagogy.