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Around The Valley

Senior Citizens Take Pride in Ability to Spell, a Talent of Yore

October 20, 1994|ABIGAIL GOLDMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Count spelling among the talents lost with the passing of "the good old days." Time was students had to memorize long lists of words and then match their skills against their peers in a contest known by the odd name of "bee." There are a few spelling bees left, the national contest among them, but most students now could go their whole lives without experiencing the intense contest.

The veterans, however, relish their days of saying a word, spelling it, and then saying it again.

At the Valley Storefront in North Hollywood, a senior citizens' center sponsored by the Jewish Family Services, employees decided to give their clients a go at an old-fashioned spelling bee.

"Our feeling was that people 60 and older are really the spellers in this country," Judy Raffel said.

"Now, with spell-check and everything, people don't learn how to spell."

They had my number.

I have never written a newspaper story on a typewriter--let alone a computer that didn't have spell-check. Tiny little silicon chips know all those anomalies like enough and buff and trough and scoff.

And I have never been in a spelling bee.

Consequently, those times when I'm not shouting a spelling query across my terminal, I'm humming the alphabet as I thumb through my Webster's.

After the spelling bee, I promised myself, I would confess my shortcoming. In the meantime, I would watch.

All 12 or so contestants were older than 60. All were women. Some were happy to reveal their ages.

Others hedged. ("I'm as old as my tongue and a little older than my teeth," said contestant Louise Norman.)

Before the contest, there was some confusion about the day's activities. One small, round man with a gray mustache tugged at Raffel's sleeve.

"WHAT'S HAPPENING?" the man shouted.

Raffel explained.

"WELL, ARE THERE GOING TO BE REFRESHMENTS?" the man asked.

Raffel sighed and assured him that no food had been ordered.

The man shrugged and walked into the room anyway.

Once in the simple dining room, some reconfigured their chairs around the faux-oak tables.

A few hearing aids went berserk when their wearers sat too close to the microphone. Others had to move up to hear.

Raffel explained the rules: Words would be said as many times as the speller needed. They were advised to repeat the word to be sure they had heard correctly.

Those disqualified would have to move to the back of the room.

Louise Norman raised her hand.

"I missed what you said when we started because I had to take a drink of water because I had to take a pill," Norman said. Raffel patiently restated the rules.

Reading the words for the contestants was Selma Glasser.

Round one was easy. Ann Edelman spelled "banquet." Millie Ain spelled "embarrassment." Rose Unger spelled "parachute."

I felt better. These, I thought, even I could spell.

The first incorrect spelling was almost missed. A latecomer, who was allowed to participate anyway, reversed the vowels on the word "niece."

When Glasser moved on in spite of the mistake, Shirley Greenberg pointed out the error and the woman was quickly asked to move to the back of the room.

Other falterers weren't as gracious. One woman responded too quickly, spelling "faucet," as "fawcet," and grumbled as she moved to the back.

Another woman, who didn't repeat the word before spelling, spelled "recede," instead of the given word, "receive."

"I thought she said 'recede'! " the woman said. "She's not very good. They should have someone with a clearer voice."

The words got harder, and I was soon outgunned in my attempts to play along. My earlier pride vanished and I prepared to confess that although I make my living writing, I could no sooner write without my dictionary than I could drive without my car.

The prize went to Edelman, 70, of Studio City. Even back 60 years ago, there were "progressive" school districts that didn't believe in spelling bees or other competitions and Edelman grew up in one in Iowa.

I expressed my admiration. My deep admiration.

"I always thought it was something I could win," Edelman said. "Finally, at age 70, I won a spelling bee."

Her prize? In mostly single dollar bills, probably collected as fees for other Center events, there was $25 cash. There were also 15 movie passes.

Lillian Friedman, who spelled the wrong word, continued to curse her bad luck.

"I didn't hear the right word!" she said. "I don't have trouble hearing ordinarily, but I guess you get uptight."

*

Glasser, whose giant name tag identified her as the "contest conductor," had a pragmatic view of the contest results.

"Somebody's got to lose," she said as she gathered up her spelling books and headed out. "If somebody's going to win, somebody's going to lose."

I, I said, would have had no trouble being the loser.

I thought I would be revealing something when I confessed that I never remember the exceptions to the i-before-e rule. But I discovered that the contestants would have assumed as much.

Not many people my age, Edelman said with as much kindness as she could muster, can spell.

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