A Bee in My Bonnet

Commentary: Alphabet Soup

As far as I know, I am allergic to bees. When I was a child, wandering barefoot through the grassy expanses of my home state, anytime I stepped on one of the jillions of honey bees suckling at the white clover flowers that popped up everywhere, my foot would swell up and I would have to go home and soak it in Epsom salts.

There was, as far as I know, never any risk of severe injury or death. The allergy was at worst an inconvenience, at best an easy — albeit painfully traumatic — way to get sympathy and attention.

It was barely any consolation to know that, in my first brush with the death penalty, the bees would expire the moment they deposited their sharp little stingers into my vulnerable little feet.

I eventually learned to wear shoes anytime I went outdoors, without exception. To this day, I am no fan of feeling my bare feet on grass. In fact, I am no fan of my bare feet on anything, except maybe a cushy fleece blanket when I’m lying down. I am a slippers loyalist; I wear them in the house all the time, and I take them on vacations with me.

I don’t remember being stung anywhere as a child besides my delicate soles. My mom has told me about an incident when I was very young — I have no memory of this — and my brother and cousin, both older and both boys, decided it would be fun to throw things at a wasp nest. When the wasps got angry and emerged en masse, my brother and my cousin — both wiser and both faster — ran away, leaving me behind, bewildered and vulnerable. Apparently I got stung, a lot. Luckily, I was not allergic to wasp stings.

Despite that, anytime there is a stinging, flying object in my proximity, I flee — explaining, when necessary, “I’m allergic!” This is a useful avoidance tactic when I don’t want to be troubled with trying to kill or otherwise remove a pest that has made its way into the house, the car, etc. (It had not occurred to me until just this moment to feign an allergy to other insects. Henceforth let it be known that cockroaches, crickets and cicadas cause me severe respiratory distress.)

But all the grief I have suffered at the stingers of Apis mellifera, a.k.a. the honeybee — which is, by the way, the state insect of no fewer than 17 members of this union — pales in comparison to the emotional hives caused by an entirely different type of bee: the spelling bee.

It’s that time of year — soon the National Spelling Bee will befuddle NASCAR fans hoping to catch a race on ESPN. The Hollywood critics are abuzz about the film Akeelah and the Bee, about a young girl’s trek to the national bee, due out this week. Last fall’s Bee Season centered around a young master speller, too.

I’m a pretty good speller, which comes in handy, as I am an editor by trade. There are probably a few things I regularly mess up and definitely a lot of things I wouldn’t know how to begin to tackle, but when it comes to the vast majority of the language that I use in my professional and social communications, I have it down pretty well.

I don’t know what makes people good spellers; one associate who e-mails me from time to time is always referring to what a bad speller she is, but oddly enough, her spelling is always perfect when she is talking about that as a weakness. (When she doesn’t mention it … look out, and hand me the red pen.) I suppose there are some people who work hard to be good spellers — I remember a friend in college who was a fairly dismal speller, but she spent a summer studying and came back a spelling and style whiz. I’ve always been content with what came to me naturally, which certainly isn’t anything to complain about.

Way back when I was a youth, back when the honeybees were such a dreaded threat to my tender tootsies, I qualified for a spelling bee in my elementary school. I was in third or fourth grade, but young — I’d skipped most of third grade. And I could spell like nobody’s business. So I qualified as my class’s entrant in our school spelling bee, which was a sort-of big affair. Parents came, the rest of the school was subjected to the drudgery, and we participants sat on the stage, fidgety and self-conscious. I was nervous; I’ve never been a performer and have never been comfortable in front of a crowd.

Things went along as expected; the spellers’ pool got whittled down quite a bit, and I was still in it. At one point, a string of younger kids were getting stumped by the word “follow.” Each one started the word with “F-L …” and BZZZZT! I was bemused, and then became excited as I realized that they were dropping in droves and the word would be mine to spell correctly. I also noticed that I was about to be left with only older students, which of course meant that I was a super genius.

My turn came. The word was still “follow.” I was still scoffing at the foolish ignorance of those younger kids when I stepped up to the mic and, condescendingly remembering their foibles, blurted out “F-L …”

There is another word that starts with F that I can spell well, and these days I spell and pronounce it often. It wasn’t part of my vocabulary then — no way. But it pretty much sums up how I felt at that moment. With my elimination, the bee ended; there were three students left, and they were declared the three winners. (No, this was not a Montessori school.) I was left with the knowledge that I was so close, that I could have and should have stayed in it longer. I told myself I got fourth place, but this was not horseshoes.

I bumbled, and I lost. And boy did that sting.

Kristina Campbell writes “Alphabet Soup” biweekly and can be reached at kcampbell@metroweekly.com. She urges you not to flolow her example.