People here at The Independent don’t believe me when I tell them this story but it is true: I was the runner-up in the Kings County Second Grade Spelling championships, beating out thousands of other Catholic School kids in front of all kinds of Catholic dignitaries. I used to claim the Pope was there, but no one believed me, but there was a Bishop (I can’t remember his name) and I think a Cardinal (Red-Crested). Anyhow, it was a big deal.
My entire family attended the event at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. My sister, brother, and me had to wear our funeral clothes, reserved exclusively for deaths in the family, even though it was a joyous event. (I had one pair of “dress up shoes” I could only wear at funerals. I kept them until I was 29. They were a size four. That’s why I have bunions now.)
These young-uns at The Independent think I’m a lousy speller, which hurts me deeply. I tried to tell our copy editor Lisa Cowley that every time I try to spell out a word, I hear grenades from my time in Nam and my hands start shaking and I hit the wrong keys.
She believed me for about seven years (and I’m the dumb one?) until one of the other cruel staffers told her I never went to Vietnam and my hands shake because I drinks a bit. It’s true I may have developed an alcohol problem in The Gulag Archipelago, but I was serving my country (and yes, I can spell it).
If they weren’t so smug, they could learn from me. For example, how many of you out there know what a Bee really is? I do, because I went to Catholic School. It’s a thing that stores honey. Bridget LeRoy said “It’s a place to find peace within, like the song ‘Let It Bee.’” Right-O Bridget (and I’m the dumb one?), do some more yoga, dear. By the way, Neil Young wants his poncho back.
Today the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) looks much like it did back in the 1950s, when Little Rickey Murphy took the stage. It’s on Lafayette Avenue in Fort Greene and can accommodate 2100. It was made for theater and opera. In fact, I was going to perform “La Boheme,” but thought better of it.
I had earned my trip to the Big Hall by winning the Saint Francis of Assisi title. In those days, I was a really good speller because I was a vociferous reader. In fact, I read every sports book in the school library like, “Mickey Mantle of the Yankees” by Gene Schoor and “Jackie Robinson of the Dodgers” by Milton Shapiro. I worshipped Mantle so much I used to pray I’d get leukemia so he would come visit me at the children’s hospital.
There were only about 15 books in the sports section of the Saint Francis of Assisi library. On the other hand, there were hundreds in the Religion section. I could never figure out how Christ rated more books that Mantle, who had hit 56 home runs the year before. How many did Jesus have?
There were a lot of kids at the competition and it was single elimination. One by one, they started to fall.
Moderator: Rick, your word is “Giraffe.”
Rick: Please say it again.
Rick: “Giraffe. G-I-R-A-F-F-E. Giraffe.”
The crowd erupted, well actually just my family. One by one they fell to Little Rick until only one girl, named Philomena, remained.
She was a smart one. She actually spelled “Transfixiation” correctly.
It means, “When a man or a woman is specifically attracted to transgender males or females.” Whaaat?
Then, the moment that will haunt me forever:
Moderator: Rick, spell “Exit.”
My mind began racing. I went through every word I could think of that began with a X. I asked him to use the word in a sentence. “What you’re about to do in this competition,” he said smugly.
XRay, Xanthic, Xylophone . . . my mind raced silently though the dictionary but to no avail. The buzzer sounded. I lost to the annoying little Philomena on a four-letter word and it wasn’t even a curse.
I wept, openly and fully. “Second is still pretty good,” my mom said. “Not to The Mick and not to me!” I cried out.
My big brother put it all in perspective. “Hey stupid. Look around. What word is atop every emergency door in neon letters?”