You say potato, I say potatoe
Expanded from the 2-12-2006 Daily Sparks (Nev.) Tribune

As Ray Charles sang so long ago, the world is in an uproar, the danger zone is all around.

Then why was last week's most important news story about a spelling bee? Read on.

For those who may have missed it, Reno eighth-grader Sarah Beckman lost the state qualifying round because of adults with the spelling expertise of Bush the Elder's vice-president Dan Quayle.

Ms. Beckman, 14, a student at O'Brien Middle School, was bumped down to bronze even after correctly spelling "discernible." The judges' cheat sheet had it wrong and none of them were good enough spellers to catch it. How did they get the job?

Perhaps they were trying to demonstrate the degree of incompetence necessary to apply for jobs in Bush the Lesser's administration.

Ms. Beckman's parents performed like All-American athletes amid adversity: They threatened to sue. The story made national television by the end of the day.

The post-event weasling was wondrous to behold. A Washoe County School District Ph.D. PR person proferred the parental protest to the commandments of the only hallowed institution which still commands the trust of most Americans: The National Football League.

"If the coach is going to throw a challenge flag, they have got to do it before the next play begins," asserted Dr. Steve Mulvenon, who scores a D for lack of parallel construction in his grammar.

Translation of the official school district position: It matters not what is right or wrong, just what you can get away with during the game. That's one helluva way to teach children.

The judges' book had discernible spelled as "discernable," which some excused as an alternate spelling. The preferred spelling which Ms. Beckman used apparently did not appear.

Why were students not taught such an obscure variation? I think I know. This is the latest sneaky preparation for Dubya's brave new world of No Child Left Behind testing, whereby students are demoralized by perpetually flunking exams comprised of material they've never seen.

One online dictionary seems to allow "discernable," but I've never seen it so used in this country. This is the equivalent of spelling "program" as "programme," the archaic extra letters being common usage in England but certainly not out here in the primitive provinces.

If a student were asked to spell "old" and came up with "auld," how say the judges in Kafkaland? There was no standardized spelling of English words a few hundred years back when "auld" was commonly used. Nowadays you only see it while overdrinking and badly singing on New Year's Eve.

I know the importance of Sarah Beckman's experience because something similar once happened to me. In the grand scheme of life, it was a small event. But when you're young, the first cut is the deepest and the scar never heals.

I can still remember Sister Thomas Ann putting us fifth grade students through spelling book torture.

One muggy afternoon, she ordered all boys to one side of the room and all girls to the other. Thus was engaged an impromptu battle of the sexes spelling bee, with no prize but honor.

After about an hour, five girls were left against one boy. Guess who?

Sr. Thomas Ann was an uptight and pretty young nun, fresh to the Holy Cross order, hiding behind granny glasses, an old woman while still in her twenties. The spelling bee became but the first of our many confrontations.

She asked me to spell a word.

"Fears, f-e-a-r-s," said I.

Wrong, said she, "f-i-e-r-c-e" was the proper spelling.

She condescended to compliment me as the last man standing. I protested. I heard "fears" and spelled it right, said I.

My memory insists that I witnessed ice crystals forming on those granny glasses.

Her decision was both final and influenced by the fact that everyone wanted out of that warm room at the end of a summery school day.

No big deal for anybody.

Except me.

For the first time in my life, I felt the sting of injustice. An anti-social rebel was born.

In high school, I worked hard to earn the editorship of the student newspaper by my senior year. Sister Stephen, another superannuated ascetic in the Sister Thomas Ann mode, passed me over for a butt-bussing underclassman.

I confronted her, demanding to know her reasons — my first labor negotiation.

In that Gregorian chant of a voice which I can still hear, she intoned "Andy, you’re just too antagonistic."

Perceptive woman.

Can you imagine a shy Perry White or bashful Ben Bradlee?

Sarah Beckman will go to the Nevada state spelling finals after all. The threats of legal action apparently worked.

Regardless of how the judging snafu ended, she may just have gone through the most formative experience of her youth.

A truth and justice rebel may have been unintentionally birthed by our battered and bumbling educational establishment.

Potatoe heads of the world, unite!

Sarah, I understand and leave you with words to live by:

Be well. Raise hell.

Smoking Guns

Top three finishers to attend state spelling bee
Reno Gazette-Journal 2-10-2006

Bee dispute could spell l-a-w-s-u-i-t
Reno Gazette-Journal 2-9-2006

Parents protest child's spelling bee loss
Reno Gazette-Journal 2-8-2006

A note to nitpickers and purists. (You know who you are.) — "You Say Potatoe, I Say Potato," a take-off on lyrics from the George and Ira Gershwin standard "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," was the title of a two-part episode of the "Murphy Brown" TV program in 1992. The season opener was the series' response to then-Vice-President Dan Quayle's criticism of five-time Emmy-winning actress Candice Bergen's lead character. TV anchorwoman Murphy Brown was having a baby, the father of whom had not been disclosed to viewers. (In a gimlet to the ribs of Puritans, it turned out to be her fictitious former husband. It took David Letterman to bring the surreal cause celebre to earth: "Mr. vice-president, it's a TV show. It's not real.") Until the ascendance of His Accidency, George W. Bush, Quayle was the national standard for mental fuzziness raised to the level of national laughing stock. At a photo-op with some students, Quayle mis-corrected a kid's spelling of "potato" to "potatoe." All of this was a bit too much to try to explain in the print edition of this diatribe. As comedy legend Milton Berle often advised, if you gotta explain a joke, it ain't funny. Sentient people over 20 years of age will be able to deduce the allusions. Most of the rest, like Sarah Beckman, have access to the Internet. BTW: Titles cannot be copyrighted. — AB | U-News
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Copyright © 2006 Andrew Barbano

Andrew Barbano is a 37-year Nevadan and editor of Barbwire by Barbano has originated in the Daily Sparks (Nev.) Tribune since 1988.


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