11 a.m. every teacher in every classroom at McKinley Elementary School
tells their students to stand. The enthusiasm of the collective chair
scrape that follows rates somewhere between mandatory school assembly
and head lice inspection. This is especially the case in Ms.
Bergermeyer's fourth/fifth combination, which everybody knows is where
the unimpressive fifth graders are put. Eliza Naumann certainly knows
this. Since being designated three years ago as a student from whom
great things should not be expected, she has grown inured to the
sun-bleached posters of puppies and kittens hanging from ropes, and
trying to climb ladders, and wearing hats that are too big for them
above captions like "Hang in there," "If at first you
don't succeed . . ." and "There's always time to grow."
These baby animals, which have adorned the walls of every one of her
classrooms from third grade onward, have watched over untold years of C
students who never get picked for Student of the Week, sixth-place
winners who never get a ribbon, and short, pigeon-toed girls who never
get chased by boys at recess. As Eliza stands with the rest of her
class, she has already prepared herself for the inevitable descent back
into her chair. She has no reason to expect that the outcome of this,
her first spelling bee, will differ from the outcome of any other school
event seemingly designed to confirm, display, or amplify her mediocrity.
Ms. Bergermeyer's voice as she offers up spelling words matches the
sodden texture of the classroom's cinder block walls. Eliza expects to
be able to poke her finger into the walls, is surprised to find she
cannot. She can certainly poke her way through and past her teacher's
voice, finds this preferable to being dragged down by its waterlogged
cadences, the voice of a middle-aged woman who has resigned herself to
student rosters filled with America's future insurance salesmen, Amway
dealers, and dissatisfied housewives.
Eliza only half listens as Bergermeyer works her way down the rows of
seats. In smarter classrooms, chair backs are free from petrified Bubble
Yum. Smooth desktops are unmarred by pencil tips, compass points, and
scissors blades. Eliza suspects that the school's disfigured desks and
chairs are shunted into classrooms like hers at the end of every
quarter, seems to remember a smattering of pristine desks disappearing
from her classrooms over spring and winter breaks to be replaced by
their older, uglier cousins.
Bergermeyer is ten chairs away. Melanie Turpin, who has a brother or
sister in every grade in the primary wing, sits down after spelling
TOMARROW, which even Eliza knows is spelled with an O. Eliza also knows
that LISARD is supposed to have a Z and that PERSONEL needs a second N.
And suddenly the bee gets more interesting. Because Eliza is spelling
all the words right. So that when Ms. Bergermeyer gives Eliza RASPBERRY,
she stands a little straighter, proudly including the P before moving on
to the B-E-R-R-Y. By the time Bergermeyer has worked her way through the
class to the end of the first round, Eliza is one of the few left
Three years before Eliza's first brush with competitive spelling, she is
a second-grader in Ms. Lodowski's class, a room that is baby animal
poster-free. Eliza's school universe is still an unvariegated whole. The
wheat has yet to be culled from the chaff and given nicer desks. There
is only one curriculum, one kind of student, one handwriting worksheet
occupying every desk in Eliza's class. Though some students finish
faster than others, Eliza doesn't notice this, couldn't tell if asked
where she falls within the worksheet completion continuum.
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