Spring 2006




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alex spells perfectly
Bob Babin

Ten-year-old Alex hid behind his oversized spelling book. Maybe this time he’d successfully disappear into the pages. “Start with the Z’s, just once start with the z’s, come on,” He chanted.

“Alex Alexander, you’re first. Stand up. Alex don’t dawdle. Stand up!” She waited, impatient for him to stand, then: “Your word is calendar,” Ms Benjamin said. Her voice boomed as though she were giving commands to a soldier, not a ten-year-old kid.

Miss Benjamin stood in front of her desk, pointer carried in her left hand like a weapon ready for use. She stood ramrod straight, squarely beneath the portrait of President Johnson. Her salt and pepper hair puffed around her head like a small thundercloud. She dominated the room with her authority, but also with her bulk. “Dainty” would never describe her. The high school football coach looked at her and visualized “half back.” She also wasn’t a teacher to be messed with, as Alex had found out the hard way. Alex wasn’t in awe of her. She scared him to death. He dreaded this subject most of all: Spelling. No, not spelling with a little “s” but Spelling using the Ms. Benjamin “squirm and suffer” method of training. He felt as though he was a soldier being sent on a suicide mission.

“Well young man, stand up. We’re waiting. Again, your word is “Calendar.”

Alex straightened his worn coveralls nervously as he stood up. “Hey, I know how to spell that,” he thought. He anxiously pushed at his cowlick. “C-a-l…” He hesitated as he felt the sawdust forming between his ears, “Oh no, not again.”

He could dimly see the letters drifting off into clouds inside his head. Trying to grasp at them did little good: Going, going, gone. He heard a giggle behind him and realized he’d been standing silent for nearly a minute. With growing despair he attempted to sound it out. Slowly he tried again. “C-a-l-e-n-d-e-r.”

With a look of satisfaction Ms. Benjamin said, “Wrong. Wrong. You may go to the right side of the room.”

Alex hung his head, trying to cover his fire engine red face, and marched slowly to the far wall, the “loser” wall as the kids called it. Every week it was the same, a spelling quiz on Monday and Friday. Monday was a review of the previous weeks words and Friday was a quiz from the word lists Ms. Benjamin would hand out on Tuesday.

“C-a-l-e-n-d-a-r” he spelled carefully to himself. “Why did I misspell calendar? I knew it when I practiced it at home.”

Of course he knew why he misspelled words, he was afraid. He was afraid of Ms. Benjamin, afraid to be punished by his parents, and most of all he was afraid of the embarrassment when he failed; and today’s misery would go on forever. Each member of Ms. Benjamin’s fifth grade class would be made to stand up and spell words picked from Ms. Benjamin’s list. Spell a word correctly and go to the left. Spell a word wrong and go to the right. Winners and losers, and everyone in class knew who-was-who. It was a ton of fun for the “losers” like Alex. By classes end there were eighteen “winners” on the left and six “losers.” on the right. It wasn’t over yet either. When Alex got home he’d have to survive the questions and the barely hidden disappointment of his mother, even more fun.

Finally it was recess and Alex stormed onto the playground. If he had his way Ms. Benjamin would be forced to eat Brussels sprouts, “buckets and buckets of Brussels sprouts,” he muttered to himself. Other fifth grade classes got to write down their answers during spelling quizzes. No one had to know who was a good or bad speller, but that wasn’t the Ms. Benjamin way. She liked to watch the children squirm, especially him. He didn’t think he was a bad speller, but he couldn’t spell in front of the whole class. His brain froze up every time.

Alex climbed to the top of the jungle gym, venting his anger and frustrations with swings up and down, left and right, climbing up and up. The framework of the gray bars giving him a small universe he could conquer and control. Here he was a king at the top of his castle.

“She’d eat Brussels Sprouts, buckets and buckets of Brussels Sprouts if I were king,” he whispered as he clambered to the top of the gym.

“Burrrring! Burrrring!” The loud clang of the recess bell sounded through the yard. Dutifully Alex climbed to earth and headed for his classroom, but he fumed as he went, “Brussels Sprouts, raw and stinky…”

Alex received his new word list Tuesday morning and, though he fumed and worried, the week was quiet till Friday. Then it was D-Day, the spelling quiz. For once Ms. Alexander didn’t call on Alex first, but his turn came soon enough.

“Ok class, who’s next? Oh yes, Alex. Alex Alexander please stand.” Ms. Benjamin boomed.

Alex stood, awaiting his fate.

“Alex, your word for the day is “beautiful.” Ms. Benjamin announced.

Alex hesitated. He almost lost his nerve.


Then he stopped. He stood a little straighter and spelled loudly...

“Y-O-U-E-A-T-C-R-A-P,” he lifted his head and smiling, and said: “Did I spell that right Ms. Benjamin?”

That night, Alex sat “grounded forever” in his room. Through the sting of a sore butt and his tears Alex smiled. He remembered the look on Ms. Benjamin’s face, her embarrassment and anger. “Now we’re both embarrassed and angry.” He thought. And now she’d worry every time she called on him. He’d do it again too, no matter what happened to him. “Better then Brussels Sprouts,” he whispered and smiled.

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