Spelling and Speaking

As a somewhat-newly minted 13-year-old person, I found myself a part of the callow and alkaline contingent of contestants in the 1991 Frederick County Spelling Bee.

It was Friday, May 24. The night before, I had gone to the Francis Scott Key Mall with my mother and chosen some new clothing for the event. I was determined to appear as though I had known something at some time, even though the fallacy of that was patently obvious to the bumbling self, accompanied by a bemused wondering why, if others did notice, nobody was saying anything. Like, "You've got a gigantic booger on your face, and it's you." That's what friends do, is it not? They don't want to cast you to the wispily moustachioed, denim-clad ne'er-do-wells on the school bus, do they?

(I'm digressing. It's been a stressful week.)

Already unconvincing, and long-since unconvinced, of my normality at even that juncture, I would sometimes do wacky things with mock-haplessness. In hindsight, I was like this in order to create an ambiguous berth for myself in terms of whomever I would end up being. As such, it surprised no one when I chose to commemorate Bob Dylan's 50th birthday (5/24/91) by speaking a grating approximation of his  vocal style's grating caricature. All schoolday long.

During that day, my 7th-grade class embarked on a field trip to the uncomfortably "casual" Catoctin Mountain Zoo between Frederick and Thurmont. Within the zoo, boundaries were defined rather loosely. You couldn't necessarily tell at points whether it was farm or a zoo into which you had just been thrust. Such was the size of their unregulated petting-zoo area, brimful of arse-ugly and fundamentally absurd emus.

As emus are akin to ostriches, there's not a great deal that you can say to, or share with, them in any mutually satisfying way. But I was undeterred, conjuring my impression of the good Mr. Zimmerman (Dylan) with what I felt was exceptional flair (and more-than-sufficient volume). When it became clear what was happening, the emus attacked. Nothing especially brutal, but lots of impassioned pecking and hurly-burly emu bravado that culminated in my being knocked off of the log on which I had been sitting. Their position had been made clear, and I had little clear choice but to treat it with the respect that it clearly deserved. My Bob Dylan impression was defeated. I consoled myself by remembering not only that Bob Dylan himself was living, but also that I would never make it to the Spelling Bee if there was any additional ruffling of feathers (har, har).

Which brings me to the Spelling Bee. I won it that night, but they were very understated about it, as Frederick County had already made the "executive" decision not to participate in the Maryland State Spelling Bee. This was fine with me, but there was a curious wrinkle to the affair: while my co-contestants were contending with words like "coloratura" and "zootechny," my big, moment-of-truth word was...

"emu. e. m. u. emu."

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