He had won a spot in the National Spelling Bee Regionals, and of course, everyone was tuned in to Radio Belize, listening closely to see if one of their own village boys would make it. She wished she could have gone on the bus excursion to the capital city of Belmopan, adding to the cheers, but with all the other grandchildren needing lunch and attention, she was left to listen in for his voice on the radio.
After thwacking the device a few times the signal became clear again, and she turned up the volume. While she went about cleaning up the breakfast dishes, preparing for the lunch-making ritual, she could hear what was happening.
“San Antonio RC, Charles Mai, your number please.”
The frying pan she was scrubbing out fell to the dirt floor. She listened as if in a trance for her baby’s voice. “I have number 214.”
“Number 214; your word is sarcophagus. Sarcophagus.”
“Sarcophagus. S-A-R…Sarcophagus…S-A-R-C-O-P-H-A-G-U-S, sarcophagus.”
“That is correct.” The applause was brief, but inside her kitchen, surrounded by mountains of dishes, Grandma practically danced around on her tiny slippered feet. Alone with her chores, she could not speak to anyone else about her happiness, or her pride in her grandchildren’s accomplishments. So she listened, quietly, cheering alone while she went about her day.
There were dozens of students vying for the win, so she found herself getting a lot done while cocking an ear to the radio for a hint of his name. She hardly knew what the words were, much less what they meant or how to spell them, but she was thrilled every time Charlie came on and spelled his words right.
At the other side of the village, far from Grandma’s house, Charlie’s father was listening too. While his wife Maria took care of the home, alternating between hanging out laundry and chopping wood for the fire hearth, he sank into his hammock, radio blaring away, his bottle of brandy emptying slowly away. Every time his son’s voice came on the airwaves, he raised his glass, filled to the brim with amber liquid. After Charlie was done, spelling rightly for the first few rounds, he would take a big gulp and settle in to listen to the rest.
Round after round passed by, and as the bottle was drained inch by inch, his voice grew louder and slurred. Every time Maria had to make her way around him, he reached out to smack her bottom. Aggrieved, but resigned, his gray-haired wife simply ignored his drunken antics as she focused on her chores. She too, was listening and rooting for her son, while keeping an eye on the rice and the chicken that cooked away on the stove. But it took so much more energy when she had a drunken husband to watch alongside everything else, plus waiting for the remaining four boys who were in school.
Every time Maria heard Charlie spell out a word, she thought back to the nights when the studying and drilling were seemingly endless. When he wasn’t drinking himself into a stupor, and finally into unconsciousness, her husband Henry was quite intelligent, and fancied himself a tutor. Charlie spent hours after homework duties, and yard work and house chores, studying his times tables, spelling lists and more. When the ‘Bee’ was held in school, it was obvious that Charlie would be winning, so the drilling took an intense turn.
Maria could hardly write out her name, much less spell any of the words that her son was spouting off so easily on the radio, yet she felt so proud that a child of hers was capable of such intelligence. If it was one thing her drunken oaf of a husband did give her, it was intelligent children who would maybe get ahead in life. She didn’t approve of his methods of drilling, as the belt came out far too often, and swiftly, painfully, when learning didn’t take place at the speed he liked. Charlie spent a lot of time crying and stuttering answers at night, but come time for the competition, he shone through.
“The finalists heading to the Nationals will include Charles Mai of San Antonio Village, Melanie Habet and Rolando de Leon both from Sacred Heart Primary, and as an alternate, Antonia Garcia from Santa Familia…” The cheers were deafening coming from the tiny speakers.
The bottle was raised high then emptied into Henry’s mouth, while Maria smiled and clapped her hands softly, pausing from stirring the pots…
Under a thatched roof kitchen with dirt floors, a tiny wizened old woman threw her hands in the air, her gold-toothed smile radiant as she rejoiced…
In the auditorium where the Bee was being held, Charlie’s heart didn’t know if it was to leap or sink. Losing would have meant a painful punishment from his father, and the jeers of his jealous classmates. Winning meant he would be a golden boy, but intense studying sessions for the Nationals, something he was afraid of…he smiled, accepted his trophy, certificates, and waited for the new list of words that he was to learn in time for the National Spelling Bee…
…the schools whose spellers didn’t make it filed out quietly, and as they passed by the buses that carried the winning schools’ cheerleaders, the taunts and jeers filled the air. Some banged the sides of the bus, yelling and jeering. The defeated teams filed into their bus, dejected and sad, non-responsive – but knowing that had they won, it would have been doing the taunting. In a fiercely academically competitive district, it was about winning…and this time, a village boy had taken the victory…they would be back…
Click for the Current Column...
Search Messages CIG Info