Asking questions is always best

I was a spelling bee kid. Oh, not at the level of River Elementary School eighth-grader Peyton Hall, but I did make it into the top 10 in my region once. Reading Peyton’s story this week brought back memories of sitting on my living room floor, with my dad reading list after list of words to me, in an effort to help me remember, for example, that there is a mysterious A in the middle of “pharaoh,” or that “rhinoceros” does not, in fact, have a U near the end.

In telling about his practice routine, Peyton said he lugs around a three-inch binder that includes the words and their definitions and origins. That reminded me of my most nightmarish spelling bee experience.

There I stood, confident, ready for whatever the reader threw at me. She was an older, very dignified, well-respected lady. No one questioned her ability to serve as the moderator – her command of the English language was beyond reproach. And she told me my word was horf. No kidding. That’s what she said. Horf.

Now, unlike Peyton, I had not put in nearly the practice time on definitions and word origins that I had on pure spelling memorization. The thought never occurred to me to ask her to use the word in a sentence, or give me a definition. (Oh, how I replay the moment I did not ask for a definition.)

Bewildered as I was, all confidence drained, I looked around helplessly and said “H-O-R-F?”

I received a withering stare before the moderator said, “No. The correct spelling is W-H-A-R-F.”

It was all I could do not to shout “But that’s not what you said!”

I can still remember the look on my principal’s face. First, shock that I had managed to misspell such an easy word, but also (and maybe this part is just wishful thinking) disbelief that Ms. Moderator had pronounced wharf like horf.

Peyton Hall would have known better, of course. His dedication took him a long way toward the Scripps National Spelling Bee. He would likely shake his head at my failure to seek more information before I blurted out letters.

But it served as a good lesson for me. Don’t understand something? Ask more questions. In fact, maybe that partially explains my career path. Words and questions have been a recurring theme.

Congratulations to Peyton, who was the winner of the 34th annual Marietta Times Regional Bee, in March, and just missed qualifying for the national semifinals. With the improved vocabulary and writing ability you have gained, and the drive you have demonstrated to meet your goals, I suspect this isn’t nearly the last we have seen of your talents.

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Speaking of words, one of the great wordsmiths left us last week. Maya Angelou died at the age of 86. I first learned about her during the typical high school English literature classes, in which she was just another author to be skimmed so I could pass the tests. (Sorry, Mrs. Moore.) Later, though, I read a little of her work on my own, and came to appreciate – even if I couldn’t always identify with – her work.

In reading up on Angelou after her death was announced, I came across a quote she gave in 1984, which I think perfectly captures the toll writing sometimes takes on the writer:

“I also wear a hat or a very tightly pulled head tie when I write. I suppose I hope by doing that I will keep my brains from seeping out of my scalp and running in great gray blobs down my neck, into my ears, and over my face.”

Now, I don’t wear a hat to write, but then again, I’m not pushing my brain to create a legacy such as Angelou has left us. It is a legacy, according to the National Book Foundation’s Harold Augenbraum, that “all writers and readers across the world can admire and aspire to.”

Christina Myer is executive editor of The Parkersburg News and Sentinel. She can be reached via e-mail at cmyer@newsandsentinel.com