It’s a common word, something you see every day…

E-M-B-A-R-R-A-S-S-E-D, embarrassed. That’s what I felt when I was eliminated from my school’s inaugural spelling bee in the first round. I was also I-N-F-U-R-I-A-T-E-D, infuriated, because I never wanted to be a part of the competition in the first place. As I saw it, spelling bees were not potential pathways to academic glory but rather protracted exercises in dodging humiliation. You hang in there as long as you can, take your best guess when necessary, and wipe the sweat from your brow when someone else gets knocked out on a word you didn’t know, either. That’s under the best circumstances. At the other end of the spelling bee spectrum is the real possibility of making a shameful mistake and inducing self-inflicted P-S-Y-C-H-O-L-O-G-I-C-A-L T-R-A-U-M-A, psychological trauma.

Despite my reluctance, I had trudged up to the stage with the rest of the seventh and eighth graders and haplessly plopped down onto my assigned folding chair. The gymnasium seemed uncomfortably full, mostly due to the presence of the rest of the student body and what seemed like the entire faculty and staff. That included my mother, who worked in the office. She gamely chalked up my lack of enthusiasm to the general pattern of surly behavior that was emerging in my early teens. I imagine that she was glad to be there. I just wanted to be anywhere else.

There were quite a few of us crammed onto the stage, and so it took awhile before I was forced to approach the microphone. Most of my peers had sailed through to the second round with no apparent difficulty. I hoped that I could at least do that. But when the proctor gave me my word, I was flummoxed by a pair of vowels that seemed like they were out of order no matter which one I put first. Always a visual learner, I closed my eyes and conjured up my two options. First they both looked wrong. Then they both looked right. Then I pounced on one of the variations with absolute certainty. A second later, I preferred its alternative. A bead of sweat trickled down my back. I had a fifty percent chance of survival.

What was that word, you are wondering? It was flouride. Or fluoride. Yes, F-L-U-O-R-I-D-E, fluoride, which I now say with absolute certainty only because my internet browser’s automated proofreading feature will not allow me to remain ignorant on this point. But by God, I’m looking right at fluoride, and it still doesn’t look right to me, but then neither does flouride. Which is to say that I was truly traumatized by the event. It doesn’t seem to matter how many times I try to commit the proper spelling to memory. Ask me again tomorrow, and I’ll be indecisive about it. It’s a true mental block.

You may further wonder just how it is that merely enduring the minor embarrassment of exiting a spelling bee early could translate into irreparable cognitive dissonance. Perhaps the mere experience, in itself, does not. But my mortification was exacerbated by Mom’s reaction to my failure. She was convinced that I had misspelled fluoride on purpose in order to leave the stage as soon as possible.

This created a dilemma just as vexing as the unsatisfying vacillation between ou and uo. On the one hand, I was being accused of being deceitful when I had actually been honest. I did not like the idea that my mother might think I was lying when in fact I was not. But if I asserted my innocence, I would also highlight my ignorance. Yes, Mom, I saw myself admitting glumly, I really am that stupid. And so I had to decide between two unappetizing choices. Did I want my mother to believe that I was dishonest yet smart, or truthful yet dumb? Deceitfully intelligent or nobly ignorant? Ou or uo? What’s the difference?

Ultimately I settled on feebly dismissing her allegation, a purely Machiavellian move by which I intended to cull the best of both options. In telling her that I did not intentionally misspell fluoride, I was assuaging my conscience by declaring the simple truth. I realized, however, that countering her claim with a further falsehood might be exactly what she might expect from her darkly clever son. If I really wanted her to believe me, I would have to repeatedly and indignantly emphasize my honesty. But I didn’t really want her to believe me quite so much. So I only spoke the truth once. After that, I ignored the whole affair, and if Mom continued to believe that I really could spell fluoride and was sufficiently shrewd to find a way to get myself tossed out of an event I loathed, that was not my fault. I had told her the truth, for goodness’ sake.

Who would have thought that a silly misspelling could morph into an ethical morass? What would Freud have made of its implications? Here’s a neurotic kid who seeks the approval of his mother, a goal conventionally achieved through consistently exhibiting honesty, by remaining duplicitous so that she might overestimate his intelligence. Either way he wins, and either way he loses, which means that he neither wins nor loses but instead remains imprisoned in a psychological purgatory. This, then, mirrors the duality of his humiliation upon the spelling bee stage. If he spells fluoride correctly, he gains the admiration of his peers and maintains his ego, yet he must endure a further round upon the stage. By misspelling fluoride, he is encouraged to leave this crass exhibition of which he desired no part, but he also looks like an idiot. It is simultaneously a hollow victory and a beneficial defeat. Which is to say that it is neither, an eternally unresolved conundrum that will render him forever incapable of remembering how to spell fluoride, despite the fact that it’s printed right there on every blessed tube of toothpaste he’s squeezed every morning ever since.

Is there a cure for my curious mental malady? Perhaps writing about my psychosis will purge it from my system. Perhaps. P-E-R-H-A-P-S, perhaps.