Mark Twain has been referred to by some as the father of American literature and an inimitable icon of American culture. His works aren’t just fictional written texts, but tangible artifacts of both American literary and cultural history.
But guess what? He struggled with spelling.
When “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was published in 1884, Twain didn’t have the luxury of spell-check software, since computers hadn’t been invented. But what he did have was what he called a “Newfangled typing machine, full of defects, devilish ones.”
Twain wrote in his autobiography, “I have had an aversion to good spelling for 60 years and more ...” As he attempted to describe his love-hate relationship with this miraculous typewriter, he wrote, “It don’t ‘muss’ things or scatter ink blots around.”
He blamed his inability to spell because “Spelling is a talent and not an acquirement.” He believed in the dignity of being able to spell since it is a product of one’s labor. “Spelling is earned, whereas to be able to do a thing merely by the grace of God and not by your own effort, leaves you naked and bankrupt.”
Last week my wife Kaitzer, a member of the school board, roped me into attending the La Cañada Unified School District Spelling Bee. “Joe, I think you’ll enjoy it,” she enthusiastically said. While sitting there binge-watching the last season of “House of Cards,” I thought to myself she mustn’t have realized that as an elementary school student I barely survived the first round of the weekly spelling bees at Saint Frances of Rome. Frankly, I think she just wanted me to drive her in the torrential rains we were experiencing.
Last week’s spelling bee, organized by La Cañada Elementary Principal Emily Blaney, was held at the district office at the corner of Foothill Boulevard and Cornishon Avenue. It was refreshing to see dozens of parents and other adults present to cheer on the 16 fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade contestants.
I was impressed by Blaney. She began the competition with a quote from Richelle E. Goodrich, a noted children’s book author: “Many times, what we perceive as an error or failure is actually a gift. And eventually, we find that lessons learned from that discouraging experience prove to be of great worth.”
The validity of a remark is determined when the spoken words define one’s personal experience. I felt as though Blaney was speaking to me. Her comments were gifts to the little spellers.
She introduced the evening’s officials: the spelling master and LCHS principal Jim Cartnal, and judges Kip Glazer, LCHS assistant principal, and my wife.
Cartnal gave the spellers a practice round. Such words as “cat,” “dog,” “ant” and “lion,” he quizzed. If I were up there, I thought, I’d win my first spelling bee.
However, after a few rounds, it was evident I would again be disqualified and find comfort in the words of Andrew Jackson, “It is a darn poor mind that can think of only one way to spell a word.”
Throughout the evening Kaitzer would ask for clarification and Cartnal would consult “Webster’s International Dictionary.” Funny, I always thought Kaitzer could spell. After 20 some years or marriage, you’d think you’d know someone. Anyway, Cartnal would remove his glasses, place his nose an inch from the dictionary and attempt to read the word.
One of the kids chuckled when he was asked to spell “rutabaga.” I couldn’t even look rutabaga up in the dictionary. I was one of those students who always believed that to look something up you had first to be able to spell it.
As was inevitable, by the end of the evening we had a winner, Nicholas Sue. I asked him, “What was on your mind when you were asked that final word?”
“I was very scared; my knees were shaking,” he answered.
Cartnal’s summation of the evening was the icing on the cake. “A spelling bee honors the importance of words, which are foundational to the human story.”