When I was in the third grade, I won the grade-wide spelling bee.
I don’t consider myself to be all that hot of a speller. There are some words that consistently flummox me, and with automatic spell checking in every program I ever use to compose text, whatever spelling ability I did have has largely atrophied into a tiny husk, residing in the same part of the brain that knows how to navigate places without using a GPS, remembers phone numbers, and is capable of waiting more than five seconds without an electronic distraction. However, back then I guess my spelling abilities were sufficient for me to muddle my way to victory.
After my epic win (which was only mildly epic, as I’m pretty sure all the third grade classes together were fewer than fifty students), my best friend Matt and I went to the playground where we engaged in our usual pastime of inventing an imaginary world and then just…being in it. Since we were third graders, these imaginary worlds heavily involved swords and often featured a lot of running around and being noisy.
Another kid walked up to us and said, “what are you guys playing? Can I play with you?” We were flummoxed, as nobody had ever shown any interest in playing with us before. I asked him why he wanted to play with us, and he looked at me and said “you’re cool now! You won the spelling bee!”
I’m fairly certain that his perception of what constituted cool even for that whitebread suburban school was seriously miscalibrated. In any case, it’s an uncomfortable amount of insight into my personality and character that, upon hearing that I was now cool, the first thing I felt was a sudden surge of anxiety. I had no idea how to be cool! I didn’t know what cool kids did. I just wanted to play in this imaginary world with my friend Matt.
We haltingly tried to explain to him the rules of the world we had made up (I suspect said rules were mostly based around whatever video game we were playing at the time). Our play was mostly intuitive; nobody explained the rules to us, and we never really had to explain them to each other. Trying to put this intuition into speech was weird and complicated and I could tell even as the words were coming out of my mouth that what I was saying made no sense.
After a while, the other kid just sort of said “oh, ok…” and then wandered off. I assume he had decided I was no longer cool. For my part, I was infinitely relieved that the weighty mantle of coolness had been removed from my shoulders, and we finished out the recess period in peace.