Meritocracy in a Fallen World–A Spelling Bee

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Recess at Noontime–Winslow Homer

Spelling bees can be fun sport for smart-minded chums, but what of the poor souls without talent? Let’s join William Weldon at the beginning of book two. After a head injury he’s fallen prey to his rivals–Fred and Buck Crenshaw who offer to “help” him learn the spelling words for a contest. Oh, boys will be boys:

            And so the night of the spelling bee arrived with snow falling. William scanned over the worn spelling list in his hands as his family dressed in the only warm room of the house.

“Maybe it will be cancelled,” his father said, as he struggled to get hold of his suspender straps behind his back. His mother came and tossed the bold blue straps, bought for the occasion, over her husband’s shoulders. She came around front and helped button his blouse at the top. He had never fully recovered from fighting in the West.

“Lieutenant, are you cold?” his mother asked dotingly.

            “Kate, I wish I could do the words for him tonight,” John confessed.

            “You are too old and too tall, Mr. Weldon. They’d surely find you out,” Katherine joked and took his arm. All winter his leg had been a problem so she helped him now.

 “Maybe I shouldn’t go into town with you,” he said.

 William wished he wouldn’t come. His father had slipped back into the morphine just once since returning from the army, and had been discovered asleep in the park, so the whole town knew. Fred Crenshaw had told William one day while studying.

           “You will see tonight, Mr. Weldon, that having the boys around has made all the difference for William. Maybe in the spring we can think of school,” Katherine chirped.

            William hated the false tones she used around his father.

             “I don’t know about school, but I can’t argue that Willy does seem more cheerful. I’m glad he has friends again, though I still have trouble liking them.”

            Katherine kissed his chin and he smiled.

            William went over the words. “L-e-u-t-e-n-e-n-t.”

            John hustled over. “Willy, you spelled that wrong!”

            “John, don’t upset him now. Maybe you didn’t hear him correctly,” Katherine said.

             “No, I heard him, damn it,” John replied and stumbled over to William, who sat tucked in his chair with his hair greased and combed and his new shoes polished. Since falling from the horse any upset stunned and confused him. His father seemed enormous.

             “Papa, you’re wrong. I spelt it right.” He repeated it for them.

 “No! No! That’s incorrect! I should know!” John burst out.

             William looked at the list, moving his finger shakily over the worn and wrinkled paper and found the word carefully printed out by Buck weeks ago. “I’m right, Papa. See here!”

            John grabbed the sheet, but it fell between his weak fingers. William moaned impatiently. Katherine and John bent at the same time and almost bumped heads. Finally John looked it over, shaking his head. “These are ALL misspelled, Willy.”

            “What?” Katherine cried and took the paper.

            “No, Papa, that’s the very list the boys gave me. . .”

            “Those bastards! They’ve taught you all the wrong spellings! They’ve made a fool of you! You should have let us see the list from the start when I asked you!” John yelled. “I could have helped you!”

            “I don’t want your help!” William cried.

            Katherine took John’s hand. “Don’t take it out on poor William!”

            John ran his hands through his hair. “W-Willy, I-I know it’s n-not your fault.”

            William cringed at his father’s halting speech that had reappeared in the past months.

            “It’s j-just that you’ve worked so hard and I never wanted you to do this in the first place.”

            “I know! You’re embarrassed of me!” William cried.

            “No!” John tried to kneel at his son’s side, but it was awkward and painful so Katherine helped him back to standing. “Willy, I want to protect you.”

            “Well, you’re too late for that! I’m stupid now and easily tricked,” William sobbed. “And I thought that they might really be my friends. I can’t even fight them.”

            “Well, I can!” John fumed.

            William pulled at his short-cropped hair. “Now what shall I do? It took me forever to learn the words wrong—I’ll never be able to change them in my head!”

            “William, we just won’t go,” John suggested, but William’s grandmother Sarah was listening at her seat near the window. “Be a man, William. Take your licks and show them you’re not beaten. Don’t be like your parents, hiding in this house.”

            John opened his mouth to speak, but Katherine’s severe look stopped him.

            William looked to his mother. “Mother, it’s so unfair. I worked so hard. I don’t want to give up.” He wiped his nose.

            Katherine kissed his forehead. “Papa will drive and we’ll practice as best we can.”

            John shook his head and grumbled to himself, but went for the horses. Katherine got behind the chair.

            “Katie, the boy shouldn’t be pushed in that cart so much. He’ll never grow strong and that contraption has already torn the carriage to bits,” Sarah complained.

            William agreed, carefully, trying to prevent a dispute between the two women. “Mother, I should try. I want to try. I probably won’t last long in the bee anyhow.”

            Katherine smiled, pulling him from his seat. “Come along, my brave little man.”

            Sarah continued her darning by the window, but gave William an encouraging nod. His legs had never set right. The bee would be the first time without his chair. He hobbled to his grandmother and nearly fell into her arms when he tried to hug her. “Sorry Grandma.”

            “No, my pet, it’s not your fault, but you’re standing on my foot,” Sarah said.

            He pulled back quickly, ready to apologize again, but Sarah waved him off.

            Katherine steadied him, but he gave her a sneer and bolted forward a few awkward steps at a time as Katherine held her breath. He allowed her to help him into his coat, but perched his cap on himself. He was exhausted already.

            The winter had been such a long one and seemed bent on staying the spring, but all of Englewood turned out for the bee. Ladies with rosy cheeks and fancy bonnets chatted. The new Presbyterian Church was drafty and, although the building won rave reviews for its stained glass and imposing architecture, William hated it. It was too big.

Settling back in Englewood had been a necessity after William’s fall. The house on Tenafly Road would be safe for him, but then John had come back and Grandma with Uncle Simon’s little girl and suddenly life was sad and full and happy and strange all at once with no time to think.

            Everyone was different now. Papa was nerves and pain, Grandma was mean, the new baby was a brat and his mother didn’t have time anymore. Tonight was supposed to be for him, but as he struggled through the words with mysterious spellings on the way into town in the dark, William’s heart sank.

“I could kill those boys,” John mumbled.

            “John, you shouldn’t give up on Willy.”

            “He always gives up!” William cried.

            John slowed the horse as if about to mount a defense, but instead said nothing. The icy branches of the trees moaned and the horses snorted as they moved on.

            The Crenshaws raced towards the Weldons as they made their way up the center aisle of the church. Buck and Fred were first followed by the twin girls, Meg and Thankful, the youngest boy, Nathan and two younger girls, Maddie and Abby. Fred came up full of smiles and talk. “So, you’re set free of the chair for once.”

            Buck was ashen faced and nervous.

            All of the students from Kursteiner’s School for Boys sat up front, having gotten there early to cheer on their mates and to see William Weldon—a ghost from their past.     Doctor Graham Crenshaw’s voice was heard from the front and the crowd began to hush. William, now sitting with the other young people on the Sunday school stage, scanned the audience and saw his mother wave. Where was Papa? He was never where he should be. There he was standing stone-faced, at the back of the church, with his arms folded.

After a few words of introduction, Doctor Crenshaw, in his ever-pleasant way, began the bee. He was always so well turned out and relaxed. There was a fullness about him that went beyond his large bodily proportions that comforted and awed William. Why couldn’t his father be so good?

            The first few contestants came up primly and spelled with confidence the words they had studied and then came William’s turn. His limbs were clay as he pushed his crooked leg forward.

             “William, let me help,” Graham whispered, stepping out from behind the podium, but William was determined to go it alone. There was a bit of tittering from the boys out front. Crenshaw gave them a severe look and then a firm warning to be quiet. He turned to William, who was struggling to hold his awkward position. Muffled amusement floated through the crowd of adults who did not know William’s story and thought he was just the sort of odd fish to win at spelling.

             “William, the word is lieutenant. Your father was a decorated lieutenant in the army,” Crenshaw said.

             William just stared up at Crenshaw with his big, shining eyes, as if under a spell. Crenshaw waited and William finally blinked. The word was a shadowy blur in his mind’s eye and the army held such a mix of feelings for him. Abruptly he turned, and in his own unstable way, rushed to leave the stage. The boys up front laughed, and laughed harder still at the sight of William’s father with his cane and limp, coming to the rescue. But Crenshaw got to William first and steadied him. “I know that you’ve studied hard, young fellow. Won’t you try at least?”

            William shook his head helplessly. “No. I can’t remember it right.”

            “But Willy . . .” Crenshaw continued.

 The audience was perfectly still until one of the boys yelled, “No special treatment!”

             There was a small and mean bit of applause from some elements of the crowd. Buck got up and went to his father. The audience watched the boy whisper to Graham.

            Crenshaw, with a reddened face, went back to the podium to regain his composure. William struggled towards the steps. Finally Graham spoke. “I’m sorry to say that there has been a horrible act of foul play and mean spiritedness committed against a poor boy, still recovering from a serious head injury. I am ashamed to be part of such an unchristian crowd that is amused by a child’s suffering and most ashamed of my family’s part in it. My own sons, Buck and Fred, have conspired against a boy who has trusted their friendship. It is a sorry day when a father is sickened by his sons. For those of you who have studied, I offer my apologies, but we will now use an alternative list and of course my boys are disqualified. Go to your mother, boys.”

            Buck went willingly, but Fred said, “It’s not our fault Willy’s so slow.”

            Crenshaw took an aggressive step forward and Fred jumped from the stage to the great delight of his mates. John took hold of his son as he stepped down off the stage, but Crenshaw rushed over. “We will start again, William. You should stay.”

            “No, he won’t. I won’t allow it,” John said firmly.

            The decent folk in the church cheered William on. The boy pulled from his father and took Graham’s hand. Margaret Crenshaw was enraged at her husband for handling the situation so publicly. Before she left she asked, “Katherine, why didn’t you watch what was going on with the boys?”

            “I trusted them,” Katherine replied.

            William won the spelling bee. Graham Crenshaw gave him simple words and all of the participants and spectators left with sour tastes in their mouths.

2 thoughts on “Meritocracy in a Fallen World–A Spelling Bee

  1. Take your licks and show them you’re not beaten 🙂
    Kids can be so mean, and you’ve captured the mood really well. I liked how Margaret was piqued about it being dealt with in front of everyone 🙂

    Like

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