Sometimes it's smart to appear dumb
Spelling aloud is another matter. I’m fine with “cat” or “dog” but anything beyond that would put me at the bottom of the infamous one-to-ten scale. That, I think, is because spelling without seeing the word is like looking at a digital clock; there’s no before and no after, just where you are at that particular moment.
I’ve written before about being a washout in the spelling bees we had in grade school. Those who went to schools like mine remember how the boys stood on one side of the room and the girls on the other. When you missed a word you were banished to your seat, frequently to the accompaniment of catcalls and Bronx cheers.
The second reason I was a failure at spelling bees was social standing. At ramshackle old Kent School, where you could look out the windows and see Goodyear Plant One and the Mohawk Rubber Company factory a stone’s throw away, knowing anything more than how to cause trouble meant a boy was in deep doo-doo with his peers. This was not true of the girls, who were admired for their spelling prowess and a variety of other reasons.
Being one of the last few boys standing resulted in derision from those already seated. My goal wasn’t to remain on my feet beyond the first or second word so not being able to spell aloud was an asset, not a liability. Trudging back to your desk, head down but with a sly grin on your face did wonders toward making your life worth living. It meant the other boys wouldn’t throw things at you, call you unprintable names or be waiting to jump you the moment you set foot outside the building. I made certain I was always a jumper, never a jumpee. It didn’t require much effort.
A couple of boys were good spellers and got away with it. One lived at the Childrens Home, the other didn’t. The one from the Home was under the protection of his fellow inmates, or residents if you prefer. The other kid was undersized and accepted as an intellectual. In today’s terminology, a nerd.
Girls were expected to be smart, of course. Good looking girls were expected to be the smartest. When a plain girl or one who was downright ugly missed a word she also heard catcalls and desk thumping from the boys already seated. When a pretty girl was sent down, only sighs of disbelief could be heard. Brains went with beauty, or so we thought. Finding that wasn't always true came as a blow to our preconceptions.
There were times, I admit, when I deliberately missed a word so that my reputation as just another fool remained untarnished. This often drew a jaundiced glance from the teacher because some of them believed I wasn’t as dumb as I looked. Fortunately, the other boys didn’t catch on. You might say that in order to have their respect you had to be smart enough to appear stupid. In some schools and other places that remains true today.