The second time I win something, I’m 10 and standing on the school stage in our gymnasium. The first time I won something was our class spelling bee, and it brought me here, sweating nervously with 9 other kids in mismatched plastic chairs in front of the whole school.
I watch the first kid go down immediately trying to spell “chocolate”. Psh, I think. I could spell chocolate. They make their way off the stage, but no one takes the chair away.
Three more kids go. I spell along with them in my head, and they all spell theirs correctly. Their smiles when they turned back are confident as hell: it’s only the first round, so all the words are easy still.
As I stand up for my turn, I think to myself, It’s okay. All I have to do is not be the second person eliminated. I could spell chocolate. I could spell all the other words so far. I could probably spell whatever word they give me too.
I make eye contact with the judging panel just below the stage while I fidget in front of the mic, waiting for my word. When I say “judging panel”, I really mean “four teachers”, all of whom have taught me in some capacity over the last few years. The person reading out the words is my computer teacher, one of my favourite teachers, and his voice is thick as he reads:
“Your word is furball.”
That can’t possibly be right. Is that even a real word?
Maybe I just heard wrong.
“Uh, can you repeat the word for me, please?”
This is one of the few questions I’m allowed to ask. My teacher’s brow furrows just slightly – he is supposed to remain impartial, after all – but he repeats the word anyway.
I watch helplessly as “furball” echoes from his mouth and around our gymnasium.
Everyone is still staring at me. Waiting. To hear me spell furball.
“Um, can you please define the word for me?”
Maybe the definition will give me a hint as to what the word is really supposed to be. Or maybe, it will be long enough to buy me more time while I try and figure out why on earth they’re asking me to spell “furball”.
The brow furrow deepens. He carefully reads out the pitifully short definition:
“Of, or relating to, heat.”
Nope. No ideas what the word is actually supposed to be. Nothing. Maybe the word really was furball.
Furballs are related to heat, kind of, right? Fur makes you hot. Heat. Relating to heat.
My second-grade teacher eyes the small hourglass in front of her warily. The whispers in the gym are slowly getting more insistent. I’m running out of time. It’s the only idea I’ve got so far, so I swallow the lump in my throat:
“Furball. F-U-R-B-A-L-L. Furball.”
Everyone is still staring at me. The whispers quiet down.
I can’t read my computer teacher’s expression.
“Unfortunately, that is incorrect. The correct spelling was T-H-E-R-M-A-L, thermal.”
Well, I could’ve spelled that.
Joyce Kung peaked in the fifth grade. Just kidding, she’s never peaked. Her words can be found in perhappened magazine and sinθ magazine, and are forthcoming in Finished Creatures poetry magazine. You can find her on Twitter as @commitsbyjoyce.