My mother, though a registered nurse, fractured the English language to the delight of some and the embarrassment of others. Swedish was her first language. My father, though a machinist, enjoyed wordplay and spoke English rather well. He, too, was a Swedish immigrant.
And so I grew up hearing fractured as well as fluent English, interspersed with Swedish phrases, some of which were swear words, others designed to hide from me unpleasant secrets. Words were important to me, Swedish words, English words, easy words and what I thought were hard words in my spelling textbooks.
My parents, especially my mother, expected me to be a good student, and so I conformed to their expectations. Our school, Public School 102 in Elmhurst, Queens was only a few steps up a little hill, and there I spent kindergarten and grades one through six. I earned all As (and a devastating B+ in Geography during one grading period in fifth grade), and so far as I could tell, my education was adequate. Now, I am not so sure.
One day in sixth grade we had a class spelling bee. I won. Then, soon after, I was representing my class at the school’s spelling bee. I won again. Then I was told that I was to represent P.S. 102 at a location somewhere in Queens. Was it at the World’s Fairgrounds, or the Queens Botanical Garden, or somewhere else? In any event, I remember a room with windows, and tables arranged in a large rectangle. We contestants took our places and waited for the spelling bee to begin.
I had not done any preparation for the district spelling bee. After all, I had always received perfect scores on my spelling tests, from first to sixth grade. I was confident, confident until I heard the judges begin testing us. I heard words that were totally unknown to me, totally foreign. Where had these words come from? Not from any spelling test I had ever taken. It seems that I had two chances to misspell a word, and I managed to “succeed” both times.
The first word was ferrule. What could a ferrule possibly be? How would it look on a page? Sure, there was an “f” and an “r” and an “l” but what else? I made up something that sounded right to my childish ears, but it was wrong. Later, I found out that a ferrule was the metal cap on the top of a cane. I knew old people who had canes, but their canes were made of wood. No fancy caps on top, just a curved piece of wood. Probably Fred Astaire, when he danced in old movies (and even in those days they were old) had a cane with a ferrule on top. A cane with a ferrule probably went with a tuxedo and a top hat, items not seen on my street, 55th Road.
My second fatal word was chiffonier. Another word not in my vocabulary. It didn’t even sound like English. There was no way I could stumble on the correct spelling of such a strange word. I probably began my answer with an “s” and ended with an “ear.” Later, when I found out that a chiffonier was a tall, narrow chest of drawers, I wondered if anyone on 55th Road had such a thing. We called a chest of drawers a dresser, and so did everyone else I knew, and our dressers were of an ordinary height, not towering above my head. Who had chiffoniers? Maybe Fred Astaire did in his hotel room, or maybe the rich people who lived, not in Elmhurst, but in posh neighborhoods like Forest Hills or Kew Gardens, or on Park Avenue in Manhattan.
It took decades for me to conclude that my teachers at P.S. 102 had let me down by sending me unprepared for battle to that lions’ den of a spelling bee. But I survived, like other working-class kids, and I learned something from the experience: that the English language was vast, filled with words for items I might not ever own or even see as I wandered through the streets of my rather ordinary neighborhood.
Anita G. Gorman grew up in Queens and now lives in northeast Ohio. Since 2014 she has had 51 short stories and 17 essays accepted for publication. Her one-act play, Astrid: or, My Swedish Mama, produced at Youngstown Ohio’s Hopewell Theatre in March 2018, starred Anita and her daughter Ingrid.