poetry fix: stung {ode to a spelling bee}

on 05-31-2012

Ahh, it’s that time of year again — the season to be glad we’re not the ones sweating it out on the National Spelling Bee stage, trying to spell words like “staphylococci” or “appoggiatura” in front of the world.

I was inspired to post my poem, “stung,” after reading about  Lori Anne Madison, the youngest speller in bee history. This six year-old Virginian was eliminated when she started “ingluvies,” with an “e” instead of an “i.”

Hopefully, Lori Anne had someone like Mrs. Barlofsky to throw her a life ring. For me, “stung” has always been about the difference one person can make in each of our lives,  seeing us for who we really are and aspire to be, especially in those scary moments darkened by disappointment   or confusion.

Throughout my childhood, I had lots of Mrs. Barlofskys — adults {many of them teachers}  who helped me believe in me.  “Grateful” isn’t a big enough word to express how thankful I am for their unwavering support, so this poem was born.


It takes a few seconds to sink in.

I forgot the middle “o” in sophomore.

That means it’s time to slink on back

to that cold, metal folding chair.


I never expected to go down this way.

I tried to do everything right and

even chose these chartreuse corduroys –

the ones that whisper swish when I walk –

because chartreuse is one of my lucky words.

Some people put the u before the or forget the e altogether,

but eu has always been easy for me to remember.


Just like algorithm and luminescence were tonight.

Don’t think I didn’t see Chester Mahoney sweating it

when I rattled off  weisenboden

(a meadow soil, though that doesn’t matter)

without blinking.

And Liza Conforti’s eyebrows, they actually twitched

when I spelled psoriasis without pause.


I consider protesting.


I mean, sophomore is so clearly a Round 1 word –

maybe early Round 2, but definitely not Round 5.

I think the simplicity of it caught me off guard.


If the judges were really paying attention, they’d realize

sophomore was out-of-order, and then

wouldn’t that make my erroneous answer irrelevant?

(Erroneous, for the record, another favorite.)


Don’t these judges realize that my dad is in Mexico

with a woman whose name I can’t pronounce but

know must sound like all the forgotten things he searched for

when he used to stare out the window after dinner?


Do they even have a clue how his escape triggered

Mom’s gluttonous reading binge? It could be worse, sure—

Wild Turkey, Malomars, men with body odor, bad tempers or both – but

we are drowning in dog-eared, musty paperbacks

she buys ten for a dollar from the thrift shop.

Most days, she doesn’t even look up

when I walk through the door.


I’m sure they can’t imagine what it’s like being born to spell.

I’m not pretty or witty or athletic or interesting.

I memorize letter combinations while eating

cheese and potato chip sandwiches

because Mom stopped going into the kitchen, and

I’d choose spelling over cooking  any day.


I know, I know . . .

it’s time for me to exit stage left so

Jada Clifton gets her turn at bat,

but my legs just aren’t listening to what

my brain is telling them to do.


That’s when I see my teacher.

Mrs. Barlofsky is striding toward me,

one hand outstretched to clasp mine,

her bright orange bangle a life ring.

She looks right at me, smiling because

she believes I’m so much more than a forgotten “o,”

and she knows for sure I’m someone who will be fluent in Spanish

and harnessing dreams, someone who’s not at all afraid

this was her last chance to shine.


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