The other day at work, I was teaching a seventh-grader to do a layup. If you don’t know, a layup is the basketball equivalent of tying your shoes. Essentially, if you know how to walk and breathe at the same time, you can do a layup.
This little kid was filled with admiration for me, a well-built and coordinated adult who was a full two feet taller than he was. And the admiration stayed in his eyes, right up until I banged the ball off the bottom of the rim and back into my nose.
As I struggled to remove the wedged basketball from my right nostril, I was reminded of one of my worst days ever, back in the fifth grade.
Mrs. Ware, our teacher, loved me. I was the kid who got the special behavior star at least biweekly, which, coincidentally, is a truly effective way of isolating a child from his peers. So at the time, all my best friends were books.
Our class had been gearing up for the fifth-grade spelling bee, and I was the shoo-in to win. It wasn’t even supposed to be close. There are few glorious moments for a child with all the muscular definition of Winnie the Pooh, and this would be one of mine.
We stood up at the front of the class in line. Unfortunately, I found myself next to Darren, Mrs. Ware’s other special favorite.
Darren. What a jerk.
I hated him and his perfect curly hair and perfect free-throw technique and perfect way of getting all the girls to follow him like a cloud of gnats. And I hated that he was so nice to everyone, even me. What a perfect nice curly jerk.
Mrs. Ware began from her spelling words list, announcing that, since this was the official spelling bee, she would jump the first list of easy words and move right on to Level 2. The room gasped and tensed. I felt nothing. Easy.
The girl at the front of the line passed by with “s-t-r-a-n-g-e,” quickly followed by a slow boy who sat down on “w-i-e-r-d.” Darren came next, and with a wink from Mrs. Ware and an obvious word from the bottom of the Level 2 list, he flew effortlessly through “s-p-e-c-i-a-l,” which had the tricky “c” as an “sh” sound in the middle.
Well played, Darren. Well played.
Mrs. Ware’s attentions turned next to me, and a reverent hush descended. If I’d had a cane and top hat, I’d have leaned on one and tipped the other.
“Let’s give him a hard one, shall we?” she said. She flicked again to the bottom half and pulled out “address.”
Ha! Address. What a piddling word. A 2-foot putt. I plunged in without a second thought.
“A-D-,” a slight pause, “R-E-S-S.”
I caught Darren’s face in the corner of my eye and saw only wide eyes. The arrogant fool. I’d show him how to spell.
Mrs. Ware watched me through the casual spelling, her eyes above her glasses, her mouth grinning. She sat for a few moments after I finished, glanced down through her glasses to her notepad, and then her smile changed to a polite one. “That is incorrect.”
A silent gasp ran through the room.
I stood there, grinning. “What?” I said.
“There’s two ‘d’s!” said the slow boy who’d sat down on “weird.” “In address! Two ‘d’s!”
“Yes, thank you, Marcus,” hushed Mrs. Ware. “Sit down, Kory.“
“No, there’s just one ‘d,’” I said, knowing that I was absolutely wrong. Then the snickering started.
“I have the list right here, honey,” she said. “Sit, please.”
I floated spectrally back though the tunnel of desks, held up by the hot air in my face. I sat down, put my head in my hands and cried.
Which, coincidentally, is what I wanted to do when I botched that layup, but that came more from the searing nasal pain than the hit to my dignity. As the under-impressed seventh-grader walked off, I was glad to remember my failings.
I’ve never, not once, had trouble with the word “address” since that day, but I can’t spell “necesscearily” to save my life. And that’s OK. Because there’s nothing worse than failing when you’re expected to excel, but it only happens often enough to keep you humble.
That being said, “special” seems like a bit of a softball, doesn’t it?