Patty had made it past the early rounds of the all-school spelling bee. Today the finals were being held on the all-purpose stage, and all three grades filled the assembly room to watch.
As seventh graders, she and her classmates were the oldest students in the old building, ruling the halls on the top floor, with the fifth graders in the windowless basement. The eighth graders were squeezed into the area high school down the road this year while the district struggled to build new facilities. Patty liked being at the top this year — top of the stairwell, top of the honors roll, and top of the competition.
Now she sat in the row of folding chairs lined up on the auditorium stage, with five other students who had survived elimination, and empty chairs of the others who had not. The teacher who was acting as the moderator called Patty’s name for her to step up to the center microphone.
“The word is ‘mis-chee-vee-us’,” is what Patty heard.
In her mind, Patty knew the intended word was ‘mischievous’. The problem was not with “i before e” or changing the F at the end of “mischief” into a V before the suffix. The problem was with the teacher’s pronunciation. It made her question the way she herself said the word. It made her stop to consider whether or not there was a silent vowel hiding in that suffix. It made her doubt herself.
Patty stood there in silence, considering what to do next. Should she question the teacher? Patty didn’t know there was a rule in place that would allow her to ask for alternate pronunciations. Would it look like she was correcting the teacher? She didn’t want to be rude, especially to this particular teacher, who was scary enough in class. And how would it look to the audience. She didn’t want to look like she was unsure and asking for help. This was her moment in the spotlight, despite the fact that most of the students out there were simply happy to be getting an hour or two out of class to attend this mandatory assembly, and they probably weren’t paying attention or cared about the outcome.
Still she stood at this moment frozen in time. Patty felt like she had a reputation among her peers, and it wasn’t entirely a positive one. She was just a bit too smart at times, and perhaps just a bit too rigid in dealing with her classmates. The spelling bee was not going to win her any new friends, but it could add fuel to her enemies if she made a mistake.
She could feel the teacher watching her, and the fear of authority rose in her gut. This was not the time to be defiant. This was the time to be a good girl and accept what had been given to her. Perhaps she was wrong after all, and the teacher was secretly helping her.
Patty began her response with, “Mis-chee-vee-us. M – I – S – C – H – I – E – V…”
And Carl went on to win the all-middle-school spelling bee that year.