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by Greg on December 28, 2011

Had Wikipedia been around in 1979, I wouldn’t be holding a 32-year old grudge against a Meadowbrook Elementary librarian. I know it’s probably time I let this go but of the scant number of memories I retained from that year, it’s one of only five that I can recall with absolute clarity.

Memory #1: In an attempt to impress a neighborhood girl, I wore my brand new athletic socks pulled all the way up to my knees. They had kickass red and blue bands at the tops and I was certain that these socks would elevate me to the King of Cool. I remember feeling bewildered and heartbroken when she never even mentioned them as I strode by. Once, twice, three times just in case she missed them. Never a word or a glance. To this day, we remain apart. I wonder if Ann Fox knows everything she missed out on by dissing those knee-highs.

Memory #2: A teammate on my soccer team had just gotten a video game called Pong. If you’re unfamiliar with it, Pong was a video console that cost roughly $4,000 when adjusted to today’s dollars. For your money, you and an opponent got to rotate dials on heavily cabled paddles to control a thick rectangular line that had three movements: Up, Down, and Stuck. These thick lines would ricochet a square ball back and forth until someone scored a goal by slipping it past their opponent’s frozen rectangle. It was kind of like air hockey but infinitely less fun.

Still, it involved two relatively new inventions, electricity and television, so the nation was hooked. Hooked and intrigued myself, I approached Kelly Jenkins and said, “Hey, maybe I can come over and we can play Pong?”

He looked at me and replied, “With you? No.”

Memory #3: I was at my friend Eric Cracium’s house and was dying of thirst. Not wanting to be rude, I didn’t want to come right out and ask for a glass of water. So I chose what could possibly be the most passive-aggressive tactic ever used on another human being and said, “I wonder what your water tastes like here.”

We lived seven houses away.

He replied as you might expect someone to reply to such a stupid question.

“Uh, it tastes like water.”

Simple enough, and probably dead-on accurate, but he failed to get my hint. So what do I say? Do I just give in and ask for a glass of water? No. My genius mind reaches deep within its cerebral confines and pulls out this gem:

Real water?”

I eventually got a drink when I asked if he dared me to drink water out of the backyard hose.

He did.

Note to 1979 Self: Hoses left in the sun do not make for adequate or even tolerable sources of water. On the plus side, your lips will de-puff back to normal in just a few days.

Memory #4: I was walking home from school one day when Doug Markum approached and asked how I was doing. He was four years older than me and well known as the infamous neighborhood bully. Even with this distinction I was always cordial to him. Partly out of fear but mostly out of character. This in mind, I always thought that perhaps we had an understanding. As though I was granted immunity from his evilness because we lived just down the street from each other.

I looked up, told him I was good, and a smile crept across his face.

He revealed a speaker wire from behind his back and said, “NOW are you good?” At which time he began whipping the backs of my thighs with it. It stung with the intensity of a thousand bee stings with every strike, but I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of seeing me in pain or terror. Perhaps it was shock, but all I did was continue to walk slowly down the street towards home even though I still had two blocks to go.

Every second or third step was greeted by a whooshing sound and then a stars-producing lashing to my legs and buttocks.

Still, I walked. Without a sound, without a whimper, without hastened speed, and without ever looking back at him. Even as tears welled from the pain, I maintained course.

Whoooshhh! WHIP!

Whoooshhh! WHIP!

It was constant.

I must have been whipped twenty times along the way home and home seemed an eternity away. My jeans were torn, my legs bloodied, and every step brought a tremendous stinging pain.

Roughly a block from my house, he stopped. I never looked back so I can only assume he turned away to find someone more willing to coddle his demonic needs. As odd as it sounds, I was proud of myself that day. He didn’t win. He caused pain, he instilled fear, and he drew blood, but he never gained the satisfaction of hearing me beg for mercy.

My mother saw the blood through my jeans and ultimately the thick welts all across my legs, and was justifiably furious. She held me in comfort and that’s when I let go. Perhaps the shock of the experience was wearing off but the pain became almost unbearable. The innocent perception of my world was shattered, my skin was broken, and my legs were red and puffy from the assault.

I don’t know what happened between then and the time Doug charged at me between two houses a few days later, but he only rushed at me to apologize. Here I thought I was in for Round 2 and he was only coming to say he was sorry. Perhaps it was rooted in punishment and obligation, but he asked if I was okay, promised to never hurt me again, and said I was one tough, cool kid.

True to his word, he never touched me again. And aside from stealing my bike, he left me in relative peace. In fact, later that year, when he and a buddy of his were chucking rocks encased in innocent-looking snowballs at passing children, not one stone was hurled my way. Doug simply waved.

It’s odd where we sometimes find pride, isn’t it?

As you might expect with someone like this, Doug was eventually sentenced to life in prison for murder some years later. I’m probably the only victim he never saw cry and that experience is what makes me rabidly protective over my children when it comes to any form of bullying. They’ll never go through that degree of pain, fright, or shame. Ever.

At least not on my watch.

Memory #5: Now that I’ve left you all feeling warm and fuzzy, let’s get the point of this story. The stupid lamppost.

I was always strong in spelling and perhaps in an attempt to build my self-confidence, my English teacher recommended me for the school’s annual Spelling Bee. Only eight students out of 200 were chosen to compete so I was on Cloud Nine. I just knew I was going to win. Especially when the first word I was given to spell was “piece.” As in, “This Spelling Bee is going to be a piece of cake.”

Surrounding me were seven competitors, a teacher, and the school librarian, Mrs. Barkley. Behind her was the Spelling Bee’s 1st Place ribbon, and in my eyes, it already had my name on it.

And that’s about when the dream died.

I was tossed out of the competition on my second word. My second word!

That’s like getting ousted by Regis Philbin with a $200 question on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”

I had missed the equivalent of, “Which of these is not a fruit?”:

A) Apple
B) Cherry
C) Banana
D) Wisconsin

The kid before me got “carrot” so I was certain they’d lob an easy word over the proverbial net. This is when the librarian came at me with (and you’ll have to imagine this phonetically) “Spell lamp post. As in, the lamp post holds the street light.”

I knew it couldn’t be “lampost” so I proudly replied, “Lamp Post. L – A – M – P – P – O – S – T. Lamp Post.”

I looked at the next kid in line thinking I had coasted through round two when she told me I was wrong. She explained that there was a space between Lamp and Post and that I had spelled it as one word. Apparently, I was the only competitor in the history of Spelling Bees that had been given a two-word word to spell.

Being nine, I didn’t want to argue with an adult, so I slunk back to class and felt all the blood drain from my face when my teacher said, “You’re back already?”

As I slumped into my desk I wanted to disappear. It had already been one of the crappiest years of my life (in hindsight I’m fortunate that it was) and I was really counting on that Spelling Bee to make up for everything.

As neurotic as it sounds, I have been replaying that day in my head for-ev-er. I think about it every now and then and still can’t get over the fact that I was tossed because I didn’t say:

“L – A – M – P – SPACE – P – O – S – T.”

Turns out, and I have no idea what compelled me to look it up tonight, Wikipedia states that “lamppost” is indeed an accurate spelling. It can go either way. Adding more fuel to the fire, the way I spelled it, without the space, is actually the more widely accepted spelling.

Just not back in 1979. Much like how seat belts are widely accepted as an automotive safety device today, whereas back in 1979, they were deemed unnecessary because the world hadn’t yet discovered inertia.

Unsurprisingly, the spelling I used is further supported by Merriam-Webster Online, which asks beneath its definition of “lamppost”:

“What made you want to look up lamppost? Please tell us where you read or heard it (including the quote, if possible).”

Finally. Some closure. I couldn’t comment fast enough.

You know what? Forget the fact that knee-high stretch socks didn’t land me a babe. Forget being humiliated when I asked to play a game of Pong. And forget being parched and then scorched by a sun-baked water hose. You can even forget all those welts and the pain I endured at the hands of a future murderer.

All I want from 1979 is the shiny blue ribbon that I was unjustly denied.

Now, I don’t know what the statute of limitations is with regard to elementary school Spelling Bees in the State of Michigan, and I don’t even know who to contact, but I do know this. The first person I’m going to seek out when I walk through the Pearly Gates is Mrs. Barkley. Because that woman owes me a ribbon.

And I’m bringing a printout of the Internet as proof.



mark @ yelling near you December 28, 2011 at 12:55 am

You were decades ahead of your time and no one appreciated you. Between your passive aggressive attempts at getting water that would easily fit into a 90’s sitcom and your futuristic spelling of lamppost you might as well have had a time machine. Kudos, Greg. The Internet gives you a blue ribbon (I may not have the authority for that but nobody can stop me either).

Amanda December 28, 2011 at 5:17 am

You asked for water much how my 10yo son does. He likes to say something like “My glass is empty.” To which he usually gets some form of “That’s nice.” The even funnier thing is if you try to use inference back on him, he doesn’t get it – at all. Out of all of that, at least you will always know how to spell lamppost correctly. It’s funny what we retain from school.

Karen December 28, 2011 at 6:36 am

It is amazing which memories we retain. I was in a spelling bee in fifth grade, and something similar happened to me. The word was papoose. I spelled it with 2 p’s, and was told it was wrong. But being the big-mouthed, smart-ass kid I was, I went immediately to the teacher and protested. She looked it up in the dictionary, and sure enough, it could be spelled with either one or two p’s. The teacher re-instated me into the spelling bee, and I won on the word “plumber”. (the other girl spelled it with two m’s….the dope) I won a rosary bead bracelet (catholic school) which I still have in my jewelry box.

melissa December 28, 2011 at 6:46 pm

I won my 6th grade spelling bee with “idiosyncratically” but lost the district bee with “believe.” Go figure.

Tonja December 28, 2011 at 9:01 am

Good for you on the way you handled that bully. I wish more people…young and old alike…would do more of that. Maybe we wouldn’t have so many people killing themselves…. 1979 was a pretty good year….I graduated! Now I feel old…thanks! LOL

Cat Davis December 28, 2011 at 10:13 am

I gotta say, I did my fair share of spelling bees (you wouldn’t know it these days) and not once did I ever get a two-word word to spell so at that age, I can’t blame you for the confusion. Have you ever looked up the teacher?

Brian the Kwyjibo December 28, 2011 at 11:02 am

There’s got to be some kind of (decades) after-the-fact spelling bee arbitration process, right? They’re just lucky the internet wasn’t invented yet, and that Pong, though a technological wonder, could not look up correct spelling.

Rita Schindel December 28, 2011 at 11:26 am

I’m glad you survived the creepy bully and that you now realize that you knew more than your teacher in the spelling bee.

Heather Head December 28, 2011 at 11:43 am

Funny, I’ve had the spelling for the word “banquet” running on auto-repeat through my head ever since 9th grade. The morning of the regional spelling bee (which I had qualified for by acing the local bee), I spent hand-writing invitations to the teen banquet later that Spring.

So imagine my delight when my second word was “banquet.” How could I possibly fail? I stepped up to the podium, said the obligatory words, and rattled off the spelling so fast I probably broke some sort of spelling bee speed record.

Or would have, if I had actually spelled it correctly. Apparently, writing a word over and over all day long does not necessarily translate to correct spelling later in the day. What it translates to is overconfidence. When asked to spell it out loud in front of the judges, what I said was, “b-a-n-q-u-e-n-t.” Banquent.

I spent the rest of the bee watching other contestants fail on words I knew how to spell. I knew how to spell every single dang word that was offered. Every single one. Every one.

I don’t know why it still bugs me. Why I keep spelling “b-a-n-q-u-e-(pause)-T” in my head whenever people talk about spelling bees. But I’m glad I’m not the only one. Which is to say, I’m sorry for your loss, but not really, because I’m glad to have company. Thanks.

valmg @ Mom Knows It All December 28, 2011 at 12:59 pm

I was badly picked on in high school. I was able to hold it in until I got home most days, and apparently even there as my Mom maintains o his day that she had no idea how unhappy I was.
Also, this reminds me of the time I insisted to my Mom that humongous was a word. She, an English teacher, insisted that it was not. I found it in a dictionary and proudly waved it under her face.
You deserve a ribbon.

Chelle December 28, 2011 at 1:10 pm

Seriously, the bully turned out to be a murderer? What he did to you was actually assault and battery and he should have gone to juvie for it…but, alas, as you say, it was 1979 and bullying was just another part of life. Of course, whipping the back of your legs until they bled doesn’t really constitute bullying, IMHO.

I think you need to do some research and find that Mrs. Barkley and go get your ribbon. Internet kudos are nice, but not as nice as a big, blue spelling bee ribbon in a memory box in your home office.

You have way better memories than I do.

Chelle December 28, 2011 at 1:11 pm

Let me clarify – whipping the back of your legs wasn’t bullying. It was a chargeable offense and he should have done time for it. Bullying is stuffing a kid’s head in the toilet for a swirlie or into a locker (if you can fit him). Whipping the backs of kids legs all the way home should earn you a one way ticket to the slammer. I would have tried him as an adult too. Just think – he could have been someone else’s little whipping boy if you had pressed charges! What were you thinking???

Greg - Telling Dad December 28, 2011 at 1:31 pm

I was 8. Not sure I was thinking anything beyond, Wow, that hurts! It’s easy to know what to do years later but not at the moment. He was 12 and while my mom tried to get justice, it was a different era.

Chelle December 28, 2011 at 1:39 pm

Greg, you’re right. It was a totally different era. Did he really kill somebody? Because what he did to you was NOT a good sign!

Greg - Telling Dad December 28, 2011 at 1:53 pm

Yes, he’s really in prison for life for murder. When my mom called his mom after the incident she said, “yes, we’re having some issues with him”.

Understatement of the decade. 🙂

Christi December 28, 2011 at 6:07 pm

I’m with you on your spelling bee! I thought I was the only one still mad about that! Mine was in 6th grade and I was completely confident in a win! My word was “athlete”. I knew how to spell that 2 syllable word but the teacher pronounced it with 3 syllables, making it “ath-a-lete”. You know, kinda like “real-a-tor”. I thought it was entirely possible that there was another word that I, as a 6th grader, did not know. WRONG! I spelled it as pronounced and had to leave because I couldn’t stand to stay to see who won. I beat myself up all the way home for not challenging that teacher! Still do! I want a rematch!

Chris December 28, 2011 at 8:54 pm

When I was 12, I got to keep score in the class geography bee. Exciting, I know, but it kept me from having to participate in something I thought was stupid and gave me a minute amount of power at the same time. It came down to two boys, one I was good friends with and the other too popular to talk to me. I’ll admit to you something I’ve never admitted to anyone: I got distracted and forgot to keep score. Odds are the popular boy should have won and moved on to the next round, but without correcting for my inattention, my friend did win. Phew, that feels better! 18 years is a long time to keep quiet! I’ve since lost track of my friend, but I have tracked down the other kid and am pleased to say he seems to be living a successful life as a non-geography be winner.

Jennifer December 28, 2011 at 8:55 pm

I remember spending HOURS playing Pong at my (wealthy) friend’s house. It never dawned on us that it really is a senseless game. It was just so cool. I would love to get my kids’ opinion of the game now. They probably wouldn’t think it is quite as fun as I did. Just a guess.

Emily S. December 28, 2011 at 9:33 pm

Who gives a two-word word in a spelling bee??? That librarian had it out for you! I got kicked out of the spelling bee, too, but the memory is so painful I’ve blocked it out and I have no idea what word I failed at.

Because of this tragic experience, I developed a spelling and grammar complex which led me to a careers as an English teacher and editor. Spelling bees are powerful, people. POWERFUL.

Grammy December 29, 2011 at 7:54 am

Oh Greg….You made me cry. I had Pong, I’d have totally let you come over and play. And given you gallons of fresh water, possibly even Kool-aid.

Melinda December 31, 2011 at 10:14 am

Lol $4000 pong. I had friends beg to come play. We were the first house on the block with a home computer. We only had a black & white tiny tv so it wasn’t as fancy as it could have been. Hope you get that ribbon one day.

Dani January 1, 2012 at 11:35 am

I will always know how to spell “tattoo” because of that damn spelling bee!

Mom January 1, 2012 at 3:40 pm

I am so proud of you for sharing memories that need to be out in the open. I bet that when all this happened, you never thought that you would someday share to hundreds. Your Grandpa Lamb drilled into my brothers and me that painful things can make us stronger depending on what we do with them. I sure hope he was right because everyone has them and have survived. And those hurts are painful to a parent who has to hold their child and hope beyond hope that Grampa’s words of wisdom will hold more weight than the destruction of a piece of a child’s soul. You have lived his words, son. Your kids are, indeed soooo lucky to have you and Heather as a safety net when the world trips my grandkids.

So proud, love to all, Mom

Mark January 5, 2012 at 4:26 pm

I remember being bullied a bit when I was in grade school but it wasn’t beyond the normal boyhood pissing contest type of thing. The only time that was different was when I was at the public pool (this is around 1978), this one kid named Vincent began railing on me verbally…fatty this, fatty that. Since I was at the pool with my mother, I chose to ignore his verbal dickheadedness but as we were leaving, he was following us and still picking on me. The moment we stepped out of the gate, my mom turned to me and said (mind you, I was in 6th grade) “Mark, beat the shit out him”.

So I did. At least until the lifeguard pulled me off of him.

I had a few other incidents in High School but by then I was a football player and wrestler and a rather strapping young lad. I usually fixed those moments through intimidation. Once though when I was a Freshman, I was working on this Sophmore girl who was dating a Senior. He came hard at me and effectively stopped me from dating her through intimidation. We met later by accident at a bar when I was in College and he was a Naval Aviator. He apologized for his behavior.

Jessie January 9, 2012 at 3:23 pm

I lost my spelling bee on the word “novice” in 6th grade. I spelled Novus (like the windshield repair company).

Caroline January 18, 2012 at 11:03 am

I was eliminated from a spelling bee on the word “dawdle.” I knew how to spell dawdle, but the stupid teacher pronounced it “Dwaddle.”

Still mad.

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