Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Defy authority

In my younger years, way back in the 70’s, I was a geek; but I was a geek with one specialty- I was good in spelling bees. Very good. I still have a certificate from the now defunct Cleveland Press that testifies to my prowess in defeating all comers in my elementary school to take the crown.

It was no surprise to me, and it shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone doing any amount of digging into my personal history. I started reading before kindergarten. My grandfather was a man of words. My father raised me on crossword puzzle magazines. Spelling talent just came natural to me.

We moved to New Baltimore, Michigan in 1977 and I entered sixth grade at Dean A. Naldrett Elementary School. I went about the difficult task of getting used to a new environment and making new friends. One day the teacher made an announcement.

“We will be holding the class spelling bee next Friday morning.”

Hot dog! My chance to shine. My father helped me study the list of words, taking special glee in getting me to spell Mohammedanism. When Friday morning came I was prepared. And I won. My winning word? Mohammedanism. I kid you not.

As a result I was able to move on to the school spelling bee, along with my second runner-up. We were given the official list of spelling words, and once again my father spent time with me on a nightly basis to study the list. As we went through each word, my father noticed something odd.

There was a misspelled word. On a list of words for a spelling bee. And ironically, the word was “genius”. Spelled “genious”.

What to do? Do we try to notify someone? Do we just hope someone else notices the mistake? My father asked me to notify my teacher. I didn’t want to. I was in sixth grade, long before I took it upon myself to adopt causes.

The day of the school spelling bee came and I was ready. Before our class made their way down the hall to the room I attempted to tell my teacher that there was a problem. Whether she didn’t hear me, or heard me and just didn’t respond, I’ll never know. And it didn’t matter. The time for the competition had come.

Students stood up, students spelled, students were eliminated. I was cruising. With about six kids left it was my turn again.

My word? If you’ve made it this far you already know. My word was “genius”.

I had a choice to make. Do I ask them if they wanted it spelled correctly or spelled as given on the list? Do I just spell it like it was on the list? Do I spell it correctly? Continuing to believe that someone had to have noticed by now, I spelled it correctly.

And I was eliminated.

Tears sprang to my eyes as I sat down. I couldn’t believe it. There was no way this could stand.

There was every way this could stand. The teacher running the spelling bee announced that there was some confusion regarding my elimination, and then explained the rule- words had to be spelled exactly as they appeared on the list. Even if they were spelled wrong.

My run had come to an end. When junior high came around I was quickly eliminated on the word committee, and I would never enter another spelling bee again.

This took place in 1978. If it had taken place in 2008, there might have been a lawsuit. There might have been a blog campaign. There definitely would have been bad press. But in 1978, you just did what the principal told you. Hell, they still paddled back then. 32 years later, and you would think I would be beyond it.

I’m not.

If you haven’t learned Bruce Springsteen’s axiom that “blind faith in authority can get yourself killed”, you need to learn a lesson. People in authority will lie to you. They will use you. They will follow the "rules" no matter how wrongly those rules are applied.

I learned a healthy respect for rebellion from that day in 1978, and I’ve carried it with me ever since. Through church scandals. Through political brouhahas. Through reading one President’s lips, through a President who did not have sex with that young woman, through “Mission Accomplished”. If someone in authority tells me something, my first response is not to believe it. Don’t tell me, show me. Prove yourself trustworthy, and then I’ll believe you.



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