Marc Kuslanski, “Know-It-Alls,” and the Sixth-Grade Spelling Bee

Marc Kuslanski is a know-it-all, plain and simple.  From the time we first meet him in The Eye-Dancers, in chapter four, it’s all too evident that he loves the sound of his own voice, and rarely doubts that his theories or explanations are accurate.  Marc’s the kind of person who, when asked a question about anything, will be quick to offer his opinion.  Even if he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, he acts like he does.

I have to admit, I used to be a little bit like Marc myself.  I like to think I’ve matured a bit over the years, and no longer go around trying to prove my point or picking arguments about inconsequential pieces of trivia (though some of my friends may disagree!).  But when I was right around Marc’s age in The Eye-Dancers, I was all too quick to try to prove how much I knew.  Geography?  I memorized the state capitals of all fifty U.S. states, not to mention numerous nations around the world.  Presidents?  I made it a point to recite all the U.S. presidents, in a row, in under twenty-five seconds.  When my parents had guests, I’d go over to them and say, “You wanna hear something?”  And then:  “WashingtonAdamaJeffersonMadisonMonroeQuincy-AdamsJacksonVan BurenHarrisonTylerPolkTaylorFillmore . . .”  I don’t think I ever stopped for a breath.  And when I ended with Reagan (this was the ’80s, after all), I checked my watch.  My record was eighteen seconds.

Looking back, I shake my head.  I needed a humbling experience in the worst way, and in the sixth grade, I got one. . . .

The Spelling Bee.  I had done well enough in the preliminaries to make it to the final bee–in the school auditorium on a cold, snowy western New York winter day.  The auditorium was full of parents, teachers, students.  Was I nervous?  Who, me?  I would win the bee, no problem!  I didn’t have a doubt.  I looked to my left and right–sizing up my competition.  A dozen students sat in a line, on metal folding chairs.  Onstage, we looked out over the auditorium.  I saw my mom and dad four rows back.  They caught me looking and waved.  Let’s get this show going, I thought.  Time to win.

Mrs. T. asked the questions.  She had been my third-grade teacher and was once again my teacher for sixth grade.  She approached the mic, and asked the first word to be spelled.  The boy next to me, Tom, from my homeroom, misspelled it.

“I’m sorry, Tom,” Mrs. T. said somberly, her curly red hair a shade too light under the harsh, bright stage lights.  She held the mic with her left hand, the multiple bracelets she always wore jangling on her wrist.

Tom, defeated, bowed his head and walked off the stage.  I saw him slink in beside his parents in the audience, forced to watch the rest of the competition from the crowd.  Beside me, his empty gray chair seemed lonely and forlorn without its occupant.

“Michael,” she said, smiling at me.  I stood up.  And then she asked me the same word that Tom had just misspelled.  Honestly, I can’t remember what the word was.  But I spelled it right, and sat back down.

By the time the next word came my way, three other students had been sent to sit with their parents in the crowd.  There were eight of us left.

“Okay, Michael,” Mrs. T. said, the sound of her jangling bracelets competing with her voice.  I stood up, ready.  “The next word is ‘boundary.'”  And then she used it in a sentence, the way she always did when introducing a new word.  “The boundary between the two nations was well defined.”  Thinking about it later, I realized, she had pronounced the word in a very clear manner–stressing the “a” between the “d” and the “r.”

And yet, at the time, standing there under the lights, looking out at the audience, I somehow overlooked it.  And I didn’t think through the spelling.  I just whipped off a fast response.  After all, it was simple, right?

“Boundary,” I repeated after Mrs. T.  “‘B-o-u-n-d-r-y.’  Boundary.”  I prepared to sit back down in my metal folding chair, without a doubt in the world.

But then Mrs. T.’s voice cut through like an ice pick.  “I’m sorry, Michael.  That is incorrect.”

For a moment, I thought I’d heard her wrong.  Incorrect?  But how could that be?  How could I get such an easy word wrong?  I stood there, frozen for a second, and the clinking of Mrs. T.’s bracelets seemed like giant metal boulders clashing into each other, creating a cacophony of sound.  I glanced at my parents, and they looked at me as if to say, “It’s okay.  No big deal.”

But it was a big deal.  It felt like one, anyway, at the time.  I walked off the stage, looking down at the floor the entire while, and quickly joined my parents in the fourth row, eager to merge with the crowd, turn invisible.

I can’t tell you who won the bee that day, or what any of the other words were.  But “boundary” stays with me, even to this day.  I laugh over the memory now.  It was a lesson I needed at the time.

Marc Kuslanski needs the same lesson.  And over the course of The Eye-Dancers, he does in fact learn it, however reluctantly.  In the end, he has no choice.

So, here’s to you, Marc.  Here’s to the know-it-all in each of us . . .

“Boundary,” huh?  No problem.  Piece of cake.  “B-o-u-n-d-r-y.”

Next question, please . . .

–Mike

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. kelihasablog
    Dec 08, 2012 @ 20:25:34

    LOL….

    Reply

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