Beyond the Triangle

AN UNEXPECTED LESSON

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Whether it’s a sport or a word there is always something new to learn. And you can now add “nunatak,” which means a hill surrounded by glacial ice, and “scherenschnitte,” meaning scissor cuts, to your vocabulary thanks to the two winners of this year’s Scripps National Spelling Bee. But there are lessons far beyond the grammatical ones to be learned here.

No doubt you’ve got to be determined to grind away at these contests. But being tough does not always equate to being empowered.

Part of education should be helping kids feel confident enough to voice their feelings when they inherently recognize something is amiss. We don’t always give them credit for that, of course, but kids do have a built in barometer for the “ick” factor. While they might not understand why a certain action is wrong, they always seem to know when it doesn’t feel right. But because children, like adults, can lie, adults sometimes dismiss their wild accusations as fantasy.

Predators count on that.

This week’s spelling bee reminded me of an innocent example of this kind of childhood insecurity which happened during another spelling contest several years ago.  This one in Fresno California where 12 year old Sierra Shoemaker was asked to spell Braille.

“B-R-A-I-Double L-E.”

She nailed it. But her joy was momentary, immediately replaced by shock and disappointment when the judge in the contest declared she had actually misspelled the word.

“Braille” has only one “L,” he said.

Shame on him. After the contest, when Sierra was given a trophy for second place rather than the first place prize she deserved, she was interviewed on FOX television. She knew the judge had made a mistake she said.  But “I didn’t want to say anything because, you know, if the word master tells you you have a word wrong, you don’t really argue with him.”

Why not? That’s one of the lessons here, isn’t it. Anybody can be wrong. Priests, policeman, parents or the guy next door. Sierra now has proof positive that the eye can be deceived and that her instincts are there to help guide and protect her. She can feel comforted that she has a built in guardian angel of sorts that may nudge her into safety the next time she feels threatened or wronged. She won’t just brush off the uncomfortable feeling niggling away at her.

I remember when I went to a male doctor for my first gynecological exam. I had no previous experience to weigh this doctor’s behavior against but it did seem awfully inappropriate that his hand lingered on my breast after the exam was over. “Where the hell was the nurse”?  I remembered thinking later. I should have asked.

It can be unpopular to criticize or challenge authority. Sierra didn’t and it cost her, not only, the championship but also, potentially, the chance to move on to more competitive spelling bees in the future. But Sierra had protectors in her corner.  Her school superintendent demanded justice petitioning the powers that be to correct their mistake. But to add insult to injury the answer was still “no.” So Sierra’s school superintendent appealed that nonsensical decision.  She demanded that the only way to make up for this injustice or stupidity was to add Sierra’s name to the elite list of students who had already qualified to compete in a county wide spelling bee. The appeal was finally accepted which prompted an enthusiastic response from a girl who had learned a lifetime of lessons from one unfortunate experience.

“I’m ecstatic,” she said. That’s E-C-S-T-A-T-I-C.

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