Saturday, November 12, 2005

My History (6th In A Series)

This is the story of my journey to accomplishing what I like to call "My Greatest Achievement," winning the 1990 Chicagoland Spelling Bee. It shows how driven--and neurotic--I get when I am close to something that I want badly.

This all starts in 4th grade at Skinner Classical School, which at the time only went up to 6th grade. No one except 6th-graders and maybe a talented 5th-grader or two is supposed to hang around long enough to have a shot at winning the school spelling bee. But several 4th-graders, including yours truly and my friend "Jacob" and a couple others, wound up part of the last ten or so. We responded with typical 4th-grade maturity by stretching out across the front row of chairs, which were empty because we had outlasted most of the others, and pretending like we were bored to death when anyone but us was up at the mike trying to spell, and yes, this was in front of a full auditorium, and yes, our 4th-grade teacher ripped us a new one afterwards. Now, I want to say that I finished 3rd, outlasting my classmates, but I freely admit that my ego may be revising history and that I was not the last remaining "undergrad," but either way, I finished way higher than anyone imagined, and together we 4th-graders vowed to come back the next two years and TCB, since we knew we only had two more years left at Skinner. I don't even remember where I finished in 5th grade; I do know that the same uber-smart chick that won in my 4th-grade year won in my 5th-grade year. But she was a year ahead of me, meaning that for my last year at Skinner, she would be out of the way. I crammed and studied hard my 6th-grade year, and it came down to me and a classmate named Stephanie who was famous for having a fully-developed chest by, like, our 3rd-grade year. (I can still see her doing shuttle runs for gym class now. All of the guys would line up on the side as if we were watching a parade.) Anyhow, I misspelled "nicotine," adding an extra "c," and she got it right and nailed the next word to win it all. Displaying my passive-aggressiveness at an early age, I graciously shook her hand and congratulated her, then later accused her of stealing my study guide and replacing it with one that had "niccotine" in it. The way the process works is that the winner of the school contest competes against the 20 or so other schools in the district, and the winner of the district title takes on the 20 or so other district winners for the citywide title. Then the city champ competes in the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee, which gets a lot of pub these days, what with the ESPN telecasts and the movie "Spellbound." Well, being Stephanie's runner-up meant that if something should happen to her and she couldn't compete in the district contest, I would take her spot. Wouldn't you know, several weeks before the district contest she BREAKS HER LEG. So, combine my last year at Skinner with what I thought was my destiny to be the top speller there with the district contest that year, 1988, being held at Skinner (think conference title game at your home stadium in your senior year), and I thought Stephanie breaking her leg was a sign that I was meant to compete in the district spelling bee and have a shot at city. Nope, think again. Stephanie showed up the day of the district on crutches and destroyed my hopes and dreams. She finished second. Was I a little bitter? I complained to a complete stranger in the audience that she was taking my spot and I hoped she lost. Of course I felt like a complete dick once she did finally lose, but dammit, I wanted that spot so bad.

So my next two years of grade school were at Ogden Elementary, home of a gifted program called International Baccalaureate, and because I didn't do well in subjects that bored me, which at the time was anything that didn't have to do with sports, pro wrestling, or pussy, my grades were absolutely atrocious. I had no luck with women, I had my folks on my back all the time about my grades, and I was separated from the amigos that I grew up with at Skinner. So I basically had nothing going for me except my reputation as "Dr. Pervert" because of the naughty stories I wrote, and the spelling. It was a new district, new school, but I was the same driven son-of-a-gun as far as wanting that school spelling title. Well, I got more than I thought. The way that the school spelling bee was done at Ogden was in written form by the English teacher, Mrs. Smeriglio. It wasn't a big auditorium with the whole school watching, it was a classroom with about 50 kids in it, mostly 7th and 8th-graders from the gifted program with a few 6th-graders sprinkled in. Smeriglio read off fifty words, and we wrote them on a piece of paper and handed it in. So my first school title was rather anticlimactic. I was standing in line the next day and Smeriglio walked up to me and calmly said, "Congratulations Andre. You're number one." It was a perfect conquering--I got all fiddy words right, but the best anyone else could do was 49. A thin blonde named Sara Nicholson and a thin black girl named Jamila Carrington had overheard me talking shit before about how no one was going to have a chance to beat me in the spelling bee, and they gave me shit back, so I was extra proud because it was a victory for the ugly, fat kid over the rich, beautiful people. I believe Jamila got the 49, making her my alternate. Haha. But I wasn't done. Ogden brought in a specialist to actually pull me out of some classes and study for the district contest, as if my grades didn't suck enough. But it paid off. I walked into the school library at a grade school whose name escapes me, and whooped the little children who dared challenge me for the district championship. I even graciously shook hands with the chubby but hot black girl who finished second to me, kinda as a last little "Who's da man??" to Stephanie, Sara, Jamila, and anyone else I didn't like. The district contest was eventful because the principal, Mrs. Vandevier, gave this broke nigga $10, a lot of money at the time, to take a cab there instead of getting on a school bus. I was moving on up, baby. Finally I was able to get some respect from the people at Ogden; Vandevier treated me to a turkey-and-avocado sandwich at some highfalutin place and said, "Way to go, kid." But because success came so easily compared to my struggles at Skinner, I went to the city spelling bee at Tribune Tower a little starstruck and over my head. Despite that, I finished fourth and won a dictionary and thesarus set that I still have to this day.

Fast forward to next spring, my last year of eligibility to win the citywide spelling bee and compete in the National Spelling Bee, and my journal entry from early 1990.

Fri. Feb. 9--[Smeriglio] announced that Feb. 20 will be the school spelling contest, and Sara's issuing the challenge again. But she's not gonna win. She's gotta keep her cover girl image. While I'm studying, she's out buying clothes. While I'm cramming, she's on the phone. While I'm shaking hands as Arsenio's next guest, she's watching the tube wishing it was her. I told her one of my longtime secrets: It's not how much you study for it, it's how bad you want it. And this year, I want it bad.

See, I was thinking that if a little black boy from the West Side of Chicago could win the National Spelling Bee, then all sorts of fame would follow--Arsenio, maybe the Tonight Show, yeah, my head was a little big back then. Sara got 48 right this time for the school spelling bee. Unfortunately for her, I got 49 (I put an "e" instead of an "i" at the beginning of "ingrained," so the correct spelling has forever been ingrained into my brain). Jamila was an also-ran. To better prepare the winner for the rigors of district and city, Smeriglio made the first part oral, in that same cramped classroom, and when it came down to the final three (me, Sara, and some 6th-grade Latina) then we took the 50-word written exam for all the marbles. And I pulled it out again. Vandevier announced my win over the loudspeaker the next day, so the school support was starting to build, and with it my personal pride and confidence. The District 3 contest was two weeks later, and the night before, as a way to calm my nerves, I made a mix tape that I still have, and I also read the spelling bee words out loud onto a tape so that I could play a word, pause the tape, spell the word, start the tape, and spell another word. (I would do that before the city contest as well, which obviously means that I won the district.) At Lincoln Park High School for district, they put us in the Activity Hall, but it was only half-full with the contestants, their parents, and the judges, so where it may have been intimidating for some kids, it was no sweat for the defending district champ because I had been in a full auditorium on stage with nothing but a mike stand masking my fear, and that was just for the school title at Skinner. (In a twist, one of the district contestants, another chubby hot black girl named Dana, went to high school with me. We never hooked up, though; she was South-Side bougie.) Vandevier had suspended me two months earlier for telling a girl she had a nice ass, so it was interesting to see her slurp up to me after my win. But I understood why--I had a legit shot at being Windy City champion, and she knew that if she wanted her school represented respectfully, she was going to have to treat me with some respect.

All stops were pulled out for the Chicagoland Spelling Bee. My aunt's husband bought me an Adidas jumpsuit valued at $80, and I didn't wear it until the day of the spelling bee. I studied every night after school, even on nights when I would get home late because I was practicing for a school production of "Annie Get Your Gun." I would play my tape of all 500 words in the study guide, sometimes I'd miss 5, sometimes I'd miss 7, and every time I'd get more and more determined to conquer these words. Kids would come up to me asking when the spelling bee was and wishing me luck, kids whose parents lived in the same condo complex as Oprah, so they had no reason to ever speak to someone like me. I will never forget how I felt that morning leading up to the contest. I was arrogant, supremely confident, like Ali, "dangerous, pretty, and can't possibly be beat." From my journal:

Thu. Apr. 12--It hasn't sunk in yet. The shock of becoming Windy City spelling champion hasn't whipped me in the back of the head at the time, but it will. Alright, I'll tell you highlights. My dad picked me up about ten minutes before it started and said a prayer, which possibly helped. Then we went...[My runner-up, Renato] Diaz was shooting down words like an attack plane at its prey. But he choked on "apartheid." Now, I know that word wasn't in the list I had to study, but there was a period of one hour where two people were eliminated, so basically we used up all of the list words. Then they went to some words I had never heard of before, including one that both Diaz and I missed. I spelled "meringue" after Diaz missed [apartheid]...I was on the news all day, and I got phone calls. [Jacob] couldn't believe it, and they exploded back at the school.

Some other memories: That prayer that my dad and I had before the event involved acknowledging my mom for reading with me early in my life, and that was the first time I ever thought about how much she did for me before she died. I haven't forgotten since, though. My dad told me later that he saw the confidence I had at that point and that's when he knew that I was going to win. They take these mug shots of every contestant as they enter the hall at Tribune Tower, and mine has this half-smirk on it like I'm the coolest motherfucker in the world, and that's the pic that they used in the booklet that shows all 226 contestants in the National Spelling Bee. Of course, Mr. Cool had a couple of fuck-ups, and one almost cost me the title: First, while actually telling a girl that sat next to me during the contest how calm and cool I was, the gum I was chewing fell out of my mouth and onto the floor. Real smooth, Ex-Lax. Second, I was so intently playing songs by Prince in my head trying to relax during the contest that I completely forgot that my spelling coach had warned me to look out for the word "torus," because it can be pronounced like "taurus," and can therefore trip me up. I got the word, I spelled it like the bull, and when they rang the bell to signal a missed word, I stood there in shock wondering how they could say I spelled "taurus" wrong. The judges actually had to rewind the tape of how they pronounced "torus" in order to determine that they indeed had pronounced it like the bull and therefore could not penalize me for spelling a word that sounded exactly like the word they intended for me to spell. Whew. I wasn't playing Prince in my head anymore after that. I was totally locked in from that moment on. When I nailed the final word, and the judges said that it was correct, I turned and did this little reverse fist-pump thing inspired by one of my favorite pro wrestlers, Curt Hennig, while keeping the same stoic, almost bored look on my face that I've had ever since. And that was the clip that the news stations kept playing, so for a couple of months people were coming up to me saying, "You're that spelling bee guy!" and then doing the reverse fist-pump and telling me how cute they thought that was. I didn't plan it, though; it was a totally spontaneous move. My next action afterwards, to prove how un-smooth I was, was to stick my hands in the jacket pockets of my Adidas jumpsuit and stand there waiting for someone to give me a trophy or something. (There was no trophy. There was an Apple computer that they delivered to my house a couple of months later, but it stopped working before I started high school in September.)

The next week was a lot of fun. I stood in a classroom of kindergarteners and fielded words from them and spelled them correctly, much to their awe and admiration (except for some made-up word out of "Ghostbusters II" that I had never heard of). I did that for a room of 2nd and 3rd-graders as well. The manager of the Tribune sent me two front-row tickets right behind the dugout to a Cubs game. (The treatment that I got from the staff at Wrigley Field, as if I had no right to be there, is part of the reason why I hate the Cubs.) I went to see the superintendent of police, LeRoy Martin, and he took some pictures with me and my dad and gave me a jacket and hat, which my dad promptly took so that he could try to claim he was part of the police so that he could get free stuff and park anywhere he wanted. Yep, that's my dad. The American Legion presented me with a spelling bee poster and $25, and news cameras were there for that too, as was the Chicago Defender for pics. My dad dragged me into my alderman's offices looking for more praise, but he barely had time to shake my hand. Then that weekend, Saturday, April 21, I spoke at Operation PUSH next to Rev. Jesse Jackson. I still have a picture of that, and my aunt has an audio tape of the speech I gave, but it was not very long because the night before I was at my uncle's house watching old wrestling tapes and playing Nintendo and I didn't write a speech as I had intended to. I mentioned my mom, though, and when my grandmother heard it live over the radio, I'm told that she was very emotional. My church threw me a bon-voyage party the Sunday before I left for Washington and raised over $100 for me in fun money. I spoke at a teachers' appreciation function at Dunbar High School, and an Ogden teacher wrote a speech for me that was so good that I got a standing ovation. That summer I went back to Skinner unannounced and got a hero's welcome. They gave me a long computer printout congratulating me that they said they had hanging on the wall after I won. So for a while there, I was hot shit.

A now-funny aside is that on Friday, May 11, about two weeks before the National Spelling Bee, I swung so hard at a pitch in softball (missed everything, too) that I yanked the ball of my hip against the socket and suffered a hairline fracture. Yes, after all the bitching about Stephanie at Skinner taking her spot in the district championship despite the broken leg, I was now in jeopardy of giving up my spot to injury. But I really had no intention of missing it, even though I was hobbling around school on crutches for the next week. I even went to a wrestling match two days later, and bowled a week after that. What I didn't do during all of this hoopla is study. See, I knew that winning the whole shebang was beyond my reach, since they use any word in the entire unabridged dictionary and there's no way I can study for that. And since this was my last year of eligibility, since I knew I was never going back again, I wasn't interested in creating stress for myself and ruining the trip. I didn't do a lick of studying. My coach had some sheets of words from previous national contests, but my attitude was, either I already know the words or I don't. I simply did not want to pump myself up for competing in this thing only to feel deflated when I didn't win. My folks gave me some crap for not studying, but I think they knew why, so they weren't too hard on me.

I wanted to take my uncle and aunt as my two adult chaperones to the National Spelling Bee in Washington, DC, but the people in charge at Tribune Tower signed up my dad as official chaperone since he did accompany me to the Chicagoland Spelling Bee, and he still intimidated me (and beat me), so I didn't want to tell them to leave him off right in front of his face. That left only one spot, which I gave to my aunt since she was on my ass about schoolwork all the time and therefore deserved it more than my uncle. A "fan" left a new bag, deodorant, and other toiletries at the school, but I was trying to shove too much shit into it before we left for Midway Airport and I broke the zipper. Nice way to start the journey. My aunt and I were almost late for the May 27 flight, but we made it. It was my first time flying since I was 2, and they have pictures of me at the airport crying on my mother's lap as proof because I sure the heck don't remember. The return flight was the last time I had flown before "Torrie" and I lit up Minneapolis last New Year's. My dad took his ticket and exchanged it for a flight the next day because he had something to do the day of the flight, and he also left a day early, so on those two nights I had our room at the Capital Hilton all to myself. The nights that he was there, I slept in my aunt's room on her couch because there was no couch in my room, meaning I would have had to share the bed with my dad. Not happening. I did make sure to enjoy myself, going to an ice cream social even though I didn't (and still don't) know how to socialize, going to Virginia to look at some landmarks and play volleyball and eat barbecue, visiting the National Aquarium and Ft. McHenry, and doing an interview with a Tribune reporter the night before the contest began.

Then came the morning of the contest. I'm not nervous, I'm feeling good, I'm gonna just go out and perform, whatever happens happens, right? So I go to the bathroom and get ready to shower, and I look in the mirror. I've got 21 million little bumps all over my face. I have never seen anything like that on my face since that day, and I never saw anything like it before. My aunt's theory wasn't nerves but rather a possible allergic reaction to the spare pillow and/or blanket I used when I slept on the couch. But I know it was nerves. I had been so cool, so calm, so collected. But underneath, I was a wreck, and I didn't even know it. The reason I know it was nerves is because when I did get eliminated on my fifth word, "somizdot" (I put an "a" in place of the first "o," and yes, I am proud that I came that close to nailing a word I never heard of), I almost completely broke down, but how could I feel like that about a contest that I didn't study for? Unless...unless...I wanted that national title more than I wanted to admit. Arsenio, Nightline, and all that. I really don't regret not cramming for the contest because it would have drained me, and I still couldn't have won. Then again, one of the hardest words in the contest, so hard they put it in one of the last rounds, was "baccalaureate," and if you read the beginning of this post, you know why I would have gotten that one. So with some studying, who knows? I got the first 3 words right, but they were all from that original 500-word guide that was used for the Chicagoland Spelling Bee. Those first 3 rounds took so long because of the 226-person field that it took all day Wednesday to get through. So I made it to day 2 without exploding, then guessed my 4th word correctly before bowing out in the 5th. The girl who won appeared on "Today" the next morning. I couldn't stand to watch.

I wanted to make something special out of the week, like at least losing my virginity to a stranger that I would never have to see again, so Friday night after the banquet two fellow contestants and I actually went to the shop downstairs from the hotel and purchased a three-pack of rubbers. And because my dad left early, I had my room all to myself, and at one point there were us three guys and three girls from the contest in the room together. But we were nerdy 13 and 14-year-olds after all, so we all chickened out on making a move, then the loud music and dancing around caused the patrons below us to call downstairs and complain, resulting in my aunt coming to the room and clearing it out. We left the next day. There was a surprise party waiting for me when I got home. That's the last time anyone's thrown a party for me. But it was a great experience for me, my little fifteen minutes. I got a plaque and trophy at 8th-grade graduation a week later, and another standing ovation. I got a series of letters from a lady in Skokie who was very supportive and touched by my story. And I got 65th out of 226 in the National Spelling Bee. That's #6 in your program, but #1 in your hearts, for those of you who want proof. I also got a glimpse of what I'm like when I am around something that I really, really want: Calm and collected on the outside, completely ripped apart on the inside. I can't begin to imagine what I'm going to be like before I propose marriage to someone...the morning of my wedding...before the birth of my first child. It's difficult for those who don't know me to understand why I seem to clam up during any social situation involving women. But hopefully this will help explain why the more I care about something and want it, the quieter and more nervous I get. I just don't want to get close and do something stupid to fuck it up. It's easy for others to say, "Hey, loosen up, it's okay." They don't have a history of screwing everything up that they touch. And except for that city spelling title, I have absolutely screwed everything up.

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