I must say it was very flattering, that’s f-l-a-t-t-e-r-i-n-g, to be included in a group of local authors in a recent spelling bee to benefit the Kellogg-Hubbard Library in Montpelier. Rick Winston, friend of the arts and wordsmith extraordinaire, asked me a year ago if I’d be a contestant. “Come on, Rick,” I said. “I’m the world’s worst speller. I can’t even spell ‘kat.’”
He said not to worry, that it would all just be part of the fun. I agreed to it since a year’s a long time, but as the Feb. 23 date approached, I regretted it big time.
I had mixed emotions when Betsy insisted on going with me. “Maybe I’ll somehow benefit through osmosis by having my smart wife in the audience,” I thought, but I mostly viewed her attendance as just having one more person to witness my humiliation.
When we arrived at the library, a stately granite landmark built back in 1895, it was filled to capacity. I left Betsy and joined the authors who were gathering for orientation. Being the “home-grown” author that I am, I cringed at some of the well-known folks whose company I shared. “All great spellers, for sure,” I thought.
The bee started when Sydney Lea, Vermont’s poet laureate, assumed the podium and began calling us up alphabetically by last name. Since Morse is in the middle of the alphabet, I was able to witness half of the writers spell or not, swim or sink, and “sink” they did; amazingly, several writers went down on words that I could have spelled. In fact, when I was called, I survived my first word, which was “c-a-p-i-t-u-l-a-t-e.” I went down, however, on my second word, “reconnoiter,” for reasons much less legitimate than ignorance. Out of complete nervousness, I began it with “ri” but spelled the rest of it perfectly.
My mother, Dot Morse, was my fourth- and fifth-grade teacher up at Morse School. She was a great speller and had high hopes for me, but I let her down to the day she died.
I remember a “Dot Morse spelling lesson” one time that I got kind of by default. My sister Susie and I were quite young, and for lack of a baby sitter, our parents took us to a grange meeting. It was over at East Montpelier Center Community Hall and we were to stay out in the kitchen for the duration of the meeting. Our parents told us that grange proceedings were very private, the goings-on only to be witnessed by members themselves. Mother set us up in chairs facing the old kitchen wood stove and gave us a list of spelling words to practice.
Of course, kids being kids and secret meetings being secret meetings, they had no sooner closed the door to the grange proceedings when we were both taking turns viewing the meeting through the keyhole. I remember seeing grangers with banners across their chests carrying flags from one side of the room to the other. Susie and I stifled our giggling over finding out their secrets.
Since we could not hear what was said, we eventually tired of spying and took our seats by the wood stove. It seemed as though the meeting went on forever, and we never did get to the spelling words. We were bored, bored to death, and sat, feet against the stove’s warmth. We focused on its ornate scroll work and the word “Chattanooga” emblazoned in chrome letters across its front. After what seemed like an eternity, the meeting was over and the grangers came out. When Mother asked if we had practiced our words, we lied and said we had, only to be found out later when she drilled us herself. To this day there’s just one word we learned for sure that night, the word “Chattanooga.”
In spite of my misgivings, the library spelling bee was a huge success and a lot of fun to boot. As we took our places at the microphone, we all rose to the occasion with either a spelling-related anecdote or a bit of off-the-cuff humor. Thanks to Rick Winston and his wife, Andrea Serota, the event generated over $2,000 for the library. Libraries, like Kellogg-Hubbard, are struggling in these changing times, and it’s so important to keep them going. They belong to us. They provide a safe, comfortable haven where we can go read or borrow a good book, use a computer, or just rest our weary bones and sit for a spell.
Burr Morse lives in East Montpelier.
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