Brand building through storytelling

My Broadway Debut

The year I turned 12, I just knew I was going to be famous. I pictured myself onstage, with a gleaming trophy in my arms and exultant fans at my feet. I’d be hailed in the headlines, interviewed on TV, pursued for my autograph.

I was going to win the National Spelling Bee. Then all the kids at school would want to be my friend.

For months I pored over the hardest words on the mimeographed lists handed out to my school’s best spellers. Coruscatedsphygmomanometeronomatopoeia. I spelled in the car and at the dinner table. I dreamed of obscure, brain-cracking words that would trip up everyone but me.

I never guessed that a humble everyday word would knock me off the ladder to glory. I didn’t even get past the first rung. In Mrs. Schultz’s Grade 6 class, to the astonishment of 30 kids who’d pegged me as the winner, I left out an “s” in “possessed.” I cried all the way home and filled my diary with torrents of anguish.

My husband swears that this trauma loomed large in our first coffee date. Instead of dishing about heartless ex-lovers, I recounted my defeat in all its humiliating detail. Having misspelled “possessed,” I had become possessed by a sense of lost opportunity. Nearly nine years had gone by, yet I still saw myself as the destroyer of my own fondest hope. And I doubted that this would ever change.

My husband has a tender heart and a long memory. He also has more patience than I do with researching Broadway shows before our trips to New York. Which is how, one radiant afternoon last fall, we ended up at Circle in the Square for a performance of a musical that took me back to grade 6—The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

Circle in the Square is a place of legends. Tallulah Bankhead, Dustin Hoffman, Richard Dreyfuss, Glenn Close…they’ve all trod the boards on the stage where lesser lights were about to play geeky kids with a consuming drive to spell. I was pondering the luster of the place when the stage manager bustled to my side with a camp counsellor’s grin and a startling proposition: “How would you like to be one of our volunteer spellers? It’ll be lots of fun! So what do you say?”

A spelling bee, fun? Hey, maybe I should just try on swimwear for the audience, or have a root canal. And what’s with these volunteer spellers, anyway?

Audience bonding, that’s what. Every show includes four good-hearted schleppers whose defeat is sealed. At least they all get to leave the stage with a bear hug and a lunchbox-size serving of apple juice from the “comfort counselor.” One volunteer is usually a child, a real-life counterpoint to the cast of pigtailed, overalled actors pretending to be children. The other recruits, as far as I can tell, are endearing eggheads with a secret desire to show their wilder side onstage.

The stage manager looked me up and down. She seemed to approve of my outfit: tarnished silver earrings from Mexico, denim jacket with a white silk scarf tossed over the shoulder, faded pants that I refuse to give up because they feel like an extension of my skin. “Do you like crossword puzzles?” she asked hopefully.
“Never touch them. But I work with words. I’m a writer. When it comes to spelling bees, I’m also a sore loser.” I tried to explain my tortured orthographic history, but she cut me off. “You’d be perfect!” she exclaimed.

Oh, what the hell?

I had all of five minutes’ preparation for my Broadway debut. With my fellow volunteers—a rumpled guy in glasses, a solemn-looking blonde and a tow-headed kid who looked as if he should be calling Lassie home—I was hustled into the lighting booth for a pep talk: “The reason we chose all of you is that we really like your personalities! So just be yourselves.” In other words, no hamming. They had a show to wrap up, and we were just an embellishment.

The set was a middle school gym (I could practically smell floor wax and preteen sweat), with bleachers where I waited my turn to spell. The antics of the cast were no match for the drama in my head. I knew my mission was to be a graceful loser. Still, I couldn’t quite suppress a wild yearning to win. My first word, “jihad,” was just a setup for the challenges to come. If they gave me “possessed,” I’d be ready.

One by one, my fellow volunteers bit the dust. I stood in the spotlight, trying to look nonchalant while bracing myself for a menacing dragon of a word. Out it thundered, a word so bizarrely bewildering, I could hardly believe my ears. In the sadistically precise enunciation of Vice Principal Douglas Panch, it was pronounced “catter-joons.”

How on earth do you spell a word like that? If English words were pronounced as they’re spelled, I’d be wearing a fewsha swetter.

No definition exists for catter-joons, said Vice Principal Panch (asking for a definition is part of the onstage drill). It’s an old Nantucket whaling term with one recorded citation: “The neap tide is upon us. The leviathan nears. Catter-joons.”

The leviathan was near, alright. But I would grapple with the beast while 600 people held their breath, glad they weren’t the one at the microphone. No predictable “catterjunes” for me; I would bet on the counterintuitive. I didn’t just spell the word, I proclaimed it: “C-A-T-E-R-J-E-U-N-E-S.” Right! The audience gasped with pleasure as I strode toward the bleachers to savour my coup and gather strength for my turn.

My turn was right now, as it happened. “Ms. Maynard!” boomed Vice Principal Panch. He meant to spell me out and wrap up the show, that killjoy. His voice caressed every syllable of the next word, a tongue-twisting medical term: “xeropthalmiology.” Easy does it, I told myself. I would vanquish this word with poise and patience. The trick was dodging the Canadian trap of saying “zed” instead of “zee.” I took a deep breath: “Zee-E…”

Bzzt! They’d made pretty short work of me after all. But I have to admit they made it fun. The entire cast walked me back to my seat and serenaded me there while the audience clapped as if I’d really scored a triumph.

I was not exactly swarmed while leaving the theatre. I’m not Glenn Close, after all. But quite a few people felt moved to say, “I can’t believe you got caterjeunes! I don’t know how you did it.”

My husband, not so easily impressed, said, “I can’t believe you missedxeropthalmiology!”

So I blew it. Big deal. How could I fret about winning and losing at a time like this? A mystery word, “caterjeunes,” had briefly made me a star. I would never forget this word. I wanted to know its origins. Did it have a French root?

Back home I searched the Oxford English Dictionary. No entry turned up for “caterjeunes.” Was the word-my word–just some playwright’s fantasy?

It was time to try Google. There I found bloggers who are just as obsessed with the arsenal of words in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee as I had once been with my mimeographed lists. These folks have monitored individual performances of the show. And they’ve concluded that my word is an invention to impress the crowd. Whoever gets to spell it—“catarjunes,” “caterjunes,” whatever—is a winner for a minute.

So they say. But for me the word is “caterjeunes.” And I’ll be a winner forever.

Postscript: Last month in Sarasota, our 13-year-old grandson declined his chance to appear onstage in the local production of Spelling Bee. Dammit!  I’d wanted to cheer for him. But the show was still the highlight of his visit.

From Reader’s Digest (Canadian edition), January, 2008.

Posted by Rona

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