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“R-A-C-C-O-O-N,” I chanted to my mother.
She glanced for a moment at the list she was holding, then nodded. “Correct. Next word-”
I spelled the word, she told me if I was correct, and we lather-rinse-repeated until I had memorized every spelling word on my second grade spelling list. I was ready for Friday’s quiz, just like I was for every quiz. I’d had a steady stream of perfect papers for the last few weeks. I spelled every word right and had gotten the coveted space on the classroom’s bulletin (“B-U-L-L-E-T-I-N, bulletin.”) board. My grades were as high as a second graders could be, and my basket in the classroom where I placed my book reports was overflowing. I had read every Arthur book in the school and local libraries.
I was smart, and I knew it (I wasn’t modest) and some people disliked me for it. I wasn’t a cliché: I didn’t get teased on the playground or picked last for games of tag. Every time I got a test paper back though, a ripple of guesses ran through the class, like we were some kind of underage casino and they were all taking bets on my grade. I heard whispers when someone got a good grade. (“Wow, they did as good as Theresa.”) The whispers suffocated me the days of tests, as people said that well, of course, I’d get a perfect paper again.
For some reason, they seemed to think that I didn’t work for my grades. I knew they didn’t see me writing my words three times each at home and asking my mother to quiz me, but how did they miss me looking over the list at the start of each school day? Maybe they just didn’t want to see, because if I had to work to get my grades, then that means they had to too, and no one wanted to study when there were childlike secrets to be whispered and animated movie premieres to discuss.
It made me sad though, and it made every red one hundred percent on my paper seem like a demerit, like there was something wrong with me. I had gotten questions wrong on a spelling test before, but it didn’t matter; I had a streak of perfect papers going on for longer than a second graders’ memories last.
I came up with a plan, and on the next spelling test, the R-A-C-C-O-O-N test, I executed it. I knew how to spell all of the words on the spelling list that week, but raccoon was a tricky one. I remember now, saying to my mother then that if there was a word I was going to get wrong on the test, it would be raccoon, with its tricky double consonants followed by the double o’s.
When it was quiz time, and Mrs. Cefalo, the teacher, called out each word, I wrote them down nice and slowly. I looked around the room a few times, noticing people scratching their heads. Later, I thought the answers really hard in my mind when my one friend looked puzzled. Then I double checked my answer and waited for the next word.
This continued until Mrs. Cefalo called out raccoon. I knew my mom knew that I had the others words down - easy as pie. Raccoon, this was the one word that I could miss without her being confused though, without having to explain my plan.
I looked out, feigning a puzzled expression. I probably imagined it, in my little second grade mind, but I can still remember Mrs. Cefalo looking concerned at my delay. ‘R’ I wrote down, followed by a purposefully shaky ’a’ and ’c.’ Then (I could still hear myself saying to my mother “I just have to remember that it’s two c’s and two o’s.”) I wrote an ‘o.’
I felt a little nauseous as I finished writing the rest of the word, but with the odd confidence of a young girl whose life was ‘Lizzie McGuire’ reruns and ‘Full House’ marathons (where schemes like this were a weekly event), I knew that I had just taken a significant step in a new direction. As the quiz came to its close, I looked around the room, and smiled at the end of my perfect spelling streak. (Had it been five straight weeks then? Six? Seven? I can’t even remember now.)
Days later, when Mrs. Cefalo handed back papers, I waited for mine to come on my desk, with a less than perfect grade in the nineties. But I didn’t get my paper back, and as a handful of other students exchanged high fives and breathed “yes” under their breaths, I glanced at the bulletin board, the one I wasn’t supposed to be on.
But there my paper was, with a big one hundred percent shining out for the whole class to see. I had done it again.
I was congratulated and looked at from my pedestal, until finally later, during a moment when I caught Mrs. Cefalo slightly by herself, as the rest of the class headed into the hallway for some reason or another, I mentioned to her that I hadn’t spelled all my words correctly on the last spelling test, but for some reason, my paper was on the bulletin board with all the perfect papers. My voice was quiet and low, and I’m sure she thought I felt like I was confessing a sin of a different sort, because, as she looked at my paper and noted my mistake, she reassured me that it was her own grading error.
I was an imposter of a unique sort, and she didn’t realize it. With her kindly face, she looked at me and said that she’d take the paper down off the bulletin board, but because I was such an honest student, she wouldn’t deduct the points. I don’t remember for sure, but I’m fairly certain I must’ve faked a smile and went on my way.
I had a hundred percent. Again.
It wasn’t fair, I told myself. Even the teacher had become so accustomed to my perfect papers that she no longer paid attention while grading them. I worked hard for my grades, and I just wanted everyone to understand that it wasn’t easy, that I could make mistakes too. It didn’t all come naturally; I read a lot and I studied, and it wasn’t as though I had a fairy godmother waving her wand at me every day before school.
After that week though, I always did my best on tests. Out of pure frustration at my luck of the previous week, I gave up trying to convince people that I wasn’t a perfect speller. Eventually, though I have no idea how many weeks it took, I made a mistake on my own, actually forgetting how to spell a word. People looked at me with wonder and whispers, and I discovered a new woe of being the class nerd: having people embarrass you by pointing out your mistakes when you thought you really had known the answer.
Those things that bothered me then, I’ll admit, aren’t always as relevant now, not going into my junior year of high school. I’m a long way from the fairytale land of perfect spelling papers being a major woe, but sometimes, I look back at my second grade self, and I still understand the need to leave out the double consonants.
It’s not easy struggling in school. I understand that it is incredibly frustrating and makes every day a little bit horrible. As a child though, and even occasionally in recent years, it is also challenging to be the one who excels. There is a difficult balance between being the class smarty pants and the girl who raises her hand with the right answer.
It’s a balancing act every day, and sometimes now, when my friends ask me my grade and then look disgusted at my answer, I step back on the balance beam.
I got a good grade on my English paper, and my friend didn’t. What do I do? How do I answer when she asks about my grade (and I know that she will)? How do I make her not hate me for being good at essay writing? (Sadly, sometimes she does.)
How do I stop the class from considering me a perfect speller who doesn’t even need to study?
It’s a game everyone has played, whether it be in school or sports or whatever their club may be. Is it better to excel and have people resent it or is it better to hide in the shadows?
Realizing that there is a way to be someone’s friend and also ace English is one of the reasons I survived elementary school with a smile and not as the disliked cliché. I don’t know if taking out that extra ’c’ on that spelling test nine years ago really changed anything. Maybe it’s only in hindsight that I realize the significance of the moment and the other path I could’ve ended up walking had I continued making mistakes on tests to be liked. Maybe it’s a blessing that Mrs. Cefalo let me keep the points and that I gave up on feigning bad spelling after that.
I want to be a good student, but, and this has been the problem ever since the days of chanting my spelling words out at to my mother, I want to be allowed to be proud of it too. I teeter on the balance beam every so often, but for the most part, I walk in a nice straight line. Occasionally now, I’ve learned the importance of jumping off the balance beam and have some fun now too, missing homework not to prove a point but because I’m a teenager and I just didn’t get it done.
Sometimes I make mistakes and sometimes I don’t, and I’ve learned that neither of those things is something to be ashamed of. Now, I’ve learned that there are more important things than what other people think about my grades. As long as I’m okay with them, that’s enough.
A lot of things have changed since the second grade. After all, writing this essay, my computer’s spell check had to correct me on my spelling of raccoon, and in the second grade I had it down - easy as pie.