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Winter 1997
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Mary Beth and I vowed to make them all losers. We'd tie.

Announcement of the spelling bee came sometime before Thanksgiving I remember because Mary Beth and I were hard at work over the four-day weekend, and minutes before the Polks' Thanksgiving dinner, Mrs. Polk once again stormed into the house, this time to get Mary Beth's nose out of the pages and pages of word lists. "Iris," she said to me, "there's more to life than books. You must learn to do other things, broaden your horizons." Again, I felt like the culprit of some crime.

Other kids signed up for the spelling bee. But if any of them harbored any hope of winning, if they betrayed as much with their eyes, I didn't see it. Only their excitement over who would win me or Mary Beth. So the pressure was on, not only for the two of us to stay in the race, but to hit the finish line together.

A general vocabulary list was passed out to all the contestants and, to ensure our victory, Mary Beth and I would have to know every word. Neither of us would go down, and after the time allotted for our class contest was up, before the examiner could move on to the next grade, he'd have to declare a tie. Mary Beth had it all figured out.

I was nervous. I thought Mary Beth was too, although she had won the contest for her class the last two years. Which was the source of at least part of my anxiety Mary Beth had experience and, truth be known, she was a better speller than me. But my real problem was the contest itself, specifically the notion of standing before the entire school and being asked to spell something. Someone would see I was faking it, that I didn't know the answers, that I had no business up there on that auditorium stage. And the news would travel so that I'd see people whispering, I'd catch their doubtful glances, and then not a single letter would roll off my thick tongue. I dreamt of Mrs. Polk coming toward me, yanking my arm, and hauling me off the stage.

Mother saw my nerves. She saw me at night, long after Mary Beth had gone back to her house, hunched over the lists spread out over the kitchen table. One day I came home and found a dictionary on the table. It was old, a tattered cover and all, probably something Mother stumbled upon during one of her jaunts to the lower Fourth Street junk shops. Still, it was enormous, a Webster's unabridged with indexes marking each letter of the alphabet. Mary Beth and I dug through it as if it were an open box of precious jewels.

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