At precisely 11 a.m. every teacher in every classroom at McKinley Elementary School tells their students to stand. The enthusiasm of the collective chair scrape that follows rates somewhere between mandatory school assembly and head lice inspection. This is especially the case in Ms. Bergermeyer's fourth/fifth combination, which everybody knows is where the unimpressive fifth graders are put. Eliza Naumann certainly knows this. Since being designated three years ago as a student from whom great things should not be expected, she has grown inured to the sun-bleached posters of puppies and kittens hanging from ropes, and trying to climb ladders, and wearing hats that are too big for them above captions like "Hang in there," "If at first you don't succeed . . ." and "There's always time to grow." These baby animals, which have adorned the walls of every one of her classrooms from third grade onward, have watched over untold years of C students who never get picked for Student of the Week, sixth-place winners who never get a ribbon, and short, pigeon-toed girls who never get chased by boys at recess. As Eliza stands with the rest of her class, she has already prepared herself for the inevitable descent back into her chair. She has no reason to expect that the outcome of this, her first spelling bee, will differ from the outcome of any other school event seemingly designed to confirm, display, or amplify her mediocrity.
Ms. Bergermeyer's voice as she offers up spelling words matches the sodden texture of the classroom's cinder block walls. Eliza expects to be able to poke her finger into the walls, is surprised to find she cannot. She can certainly poke her way through and past her teacher's voice, finds this preferable to being dragged down by its waterlogged cadences, the voice of a middle-aged woman who has resigned herself to student rosters filled with America's future insurance salesmen, Amway dealers, and dissatisfied housewives.
Eliza only half listens as Bergermeyer works her way down the rows of seats. In smarter classrooms, chair backs are free from petrified Bubble Yum. Smooth desktops are unmarred by pencil tips, compass points, and scissors blades. Eliza suspects that the school's disfigured desks and chairs are shunted into classrooms like hers at the end of every quarter, seems to remember a smattering of pristine desks disappearing from her classrooms over spring and winter breaks to be replaced by their older, uglier cousins.
Bergermeyer is ten chairs away. Melanie Turpin, who has a brother or sister in every grade in the primary wing, sits down after spelling TOMARROW, which even Eliza knows is spelled with an O. Eliza also knows that LISARD is supposed to have a Z and that PERSONEL needs a second N. And suddenly the bee gets more interesting. Because Eliza is spelling all the words right. So that when Ms. Bergermeyer gives Eliza RASPBERRY, she stands a little straighter, proudly including the P before moving on to the B-E-R-R-Y. By the time Bergermeyer has worked her way through the class to the end of the first round, Eliza is one of the few left standing.
Three years before Eliza's first brush with competitive spelling, she is a second-grader in Ms. Lodowski's class, a room that is baby animal poster-free. Eliza's school universe is still an unvariegated whole. The wheat has yet to be culled from the chaff and given nicer desks. There is only one curriculum, one kind of student, one handwriting worksheet occupying every desk in Eliza's class. Though some students finish faster than others, Eliza doesn't notice this, couldn't tell if asked where she falls within the worksheet completion continuum.
Eliza is having a hard time with cursive capital Q, which does not look Q-like at all. She is also distracted by the fact that people have been getting called out of the classroom all morning and that it doesn't seem to be for something bad. For one thing, the list is alphabetical. Jared Montgomery has just been called, which means that if Eliza's name is going to be called, it has got to be soon. The day has become an interminable Duck Duck Goose game in which she has only one chance to be picked. She senses it is very important that this happen, has felt this certainty in her stomach since Lodowski started on K. Eliza assures herself that as soon as she gets called out her stomach will stop churning, she will stop sweating, and cursive capital Q will start looking like a letter instead of like the number 2.
Ms. Lodowski knows that second grade is a very special time. Under her discerning eye, the small lumps of clay that are her students are pressed into the first mold of their young lives. A lapsed classics graduate student, Ms. Lodowski is thrilled that her teaching career has cast her in the role of the Fates. Though she couldn't have known it at the time, her abbreviated classical pursuits equipped her for her life's calling as overseer of McKinley Elementary's Talented and Gifted (TAG) placement program.
Ms. Lodowski's home, shared with a canary named Minerva, is filled with photo albums in which she has tracked her TAG students through high school honors and into college. In a few more years the first of her former charges will fulfill destinies shaped by her guiding hand.
Ms. Lodowski prides herself upon her powers of discernment. She considers class participation, homework, and test performance as well as general personality and behavior in separating superior students from merely satisfactory ones. The night before the big day she goes down her class roster with a red pencil. As she circles each name her voice whispers, "TAG, you're it," with childlike glee.
Steven Sills spells WEIRD with the I before the E. Eliza spells it with the E before the I and is the last left standing. As she surveys the tops of the heads of her seated classmates she thinks, So this is what it's like to be tall.
She gets to miss fifth period math. Under Dr. Morris's watchful eye, she files into the school cafeteria with the winners from the other classes and takes her place in a plastic bucket seat. The seats are shaped in such a way as to promote loss of circulation after more than ten minutes. Two holes in each chair press circles into the flesh of each small backside, leaving marks long after the sitter has risen. Each chair has uneven legs, the row stretching across the stage like a hobbled centipede.
Through the windows on the left wall, buses arrive with p.m. kindergartners. In the kitchen, hundreds of lunch trays are being washed. From behind the closed kitchen comes the soothing sound of summer rain. Eliza feels a sudden pang of guilt for having left a lump of powdered mashed potato in the oval indentation of her tray instead of scraping it into the trash, worries that the water won't be strong enough to overcome her lunchtime inertia.
Dr. Morris is the kind of principal who stands outside his office to say goodbye to students by name as they scramble to their buses. Administering the school spelling bee allows him the great pleasure of observing his best and brightest. The children before him are the ones whose names adorn the honor roll. They are names teachers track long after having taught them in order to say, "This one was my favorite," or "I always knew this one would go far." Eliza is the exception to this rule. When Dr. Morris spots her in the group, he is reminded of something he can't quite place. At his puzzled smile, she blushes and looks away.
The meeting between Dr. Morris and Eliza's father that Dr. Morris can't quite remember occurs on Parents' Night one month after Ms. Lodowski goes from Kathy Myers to John Nervish, skipping Eliza. Saul Naumann only learns of his daughter's exclusion through one of his congregants who, after Shabbat services, announces loudly enough for the people on the other side of the cookie table to overhear that her son has been identified as Talented and Gifted. Saul realizes that the boy is in Eliza's class. Eliza hasn't tendered Saul the congratulatory note Aaron delivered at her age, the one that made Saul feel like a sweepstakes winner.
Saul's is one of many hands Dr. Morris shakes that Parents' Night. Dr. Morris's office contains a desk with a framed picture of his daughter, two squeaky chairs, and a window that looks out onto the school playground. On a small bookshelf, binders of county educational code bookend with instructional paperbacks devoted to several categories of child including "special needs," "precocious," "problem," and "hyperactive." Dr. Morris keeps mimeographed pages from these books on hand to distribute to the parentally challenged.
"Hello, Mr. Naumann. It's a pleasure to see you here tonight." Dr. Morris remembers the son—smart, awkward, too quiet for his own good. While he knows the daughter's face, he can't attach words to the picture. He scans her file, hoping for help and finding nothing. "Eliza is a lovely child."
"Thank you. We think she's pretty special. Which is why I was a little surprised when I learned that she hadn't been TAG-tested with the rest of her class."
Morris manages a polite smile. Every year there is at least one like Mr. Naumann.
"Well, Mr. Naumann, that's a bit of an exaggeration. Only a portion of the second grade is tested, the fraction of the class Ms. Lodowski feels may benefit from an accelerated curriculum."
"The smarter ones."
"There are a lot of different kinds of smarts, Mr. Naumann, a lot of ways for a child to be special."
Dr. Morris addresses that last part to the picture on his desk. It's too bad Saul can't see this picture from where he's standing. If he could see it, he might conclude that this is a somewhat sensitive topic for Dr. Morris. The only people who generally get to see Rebecca Morris's picture are the students Dr. Morris catches using the word "retard." He escorts these students to his office, where they are shown the picture and ordered to repeat the word, this time to his daughter's face.
"Of course there are a lot of ways to be special," Saul continues, no way to know that he really shouldn't. "But my older son was placed in the TAG program, and I just thought that—"
Dr. Morris's face has grown red. "Instead of focusing on what you think you lack, Mr. Naumann, why don't you appreciate what you have? Eliza is a caring, loving child."
"Of course she is. That's not the issue."
Dr. Morris pictures Rebecca walking unsteadily to the van that comes for her each morning, the beatific smile that fills her face at the sight of any animal, and her pleasure at a yellow apple cut into bite-size pieces. He wants Mr. Naumann to get the hell out of his office.
"So sorry, Mr. Naumann, but our time is up. I wouldn't want to keep the other parents waiting."
"Goodbye, Mr. Naumann, a pleasure seeing you again."
From third grade onward, Eliza's class is divided into math and reading groups. Eliza's reading group is called the Racecars. She likes it okay until she learns that the other reading group is called the Rockets. The Rockets read from a paperback that has The Great Books printed on its cover in gallant letters. When she asks Jared Mont-gomery what's inside, he tells her that his group is reading excerpts from "the canon" and Eliza feels too stupid to ask if that means something other than a large gun. She can't help but wonder if someone told her which books were great and which ones were just so-so, if she'd like reading more. While she eventually adjusts to the faded motivational posters featuring long-dead baby animals, and the fifties-era reading books whose soporific effects have intensified with each decade of use, she can't get it out of her head that, while she is speeding around in circles waiting to be told when to stop, other kids are flying to the moon.
Within half an hour all the fourth graders have been eliminated except for Li Chan, who never washes his hair and outlasts two fifth graders and a sixth grader from a fifth/sixth combination. When Li finally misspells FOLLICLE, the eliminated fourth graders chant "Stink bomb" until Dr. Morris blinks the lights to quiet things down.
Eliza gets CANARY, SECRETARY, and PLACEBO. By the time CEREMONIAL and PROBABILITY come around, it is down to her, Brad Fry, and Sinna Bhagudori.
Everyone knows that Sinna is the smartest girl in school and that Brad is the smartest boy, but probably not as smart as Sinna. If anyone knows Eliza, it is from breaking the school limbo record, which got her name on the music classroom blackboard for a few weeks but which always goes to the short kids anyway.
Sinna has blue contact lenses and big boobs. Everyone knows her eyes are fake because they were brown the year before, but Sinna insists that a lot of people's eyes change when they go through puberty.
Brad plays soccer at recess and has a lot of moles. There are rumors that he spends his summers at a camp for kids who take math and science classes because they want to, but Brad tells everyone he goes to soccer camp. No one believes him either.
A couple times when it's Eliza's turn, Sinna starts toward the podium and Dr. Morris has to remind her to wait. Waiting for Sinna to return to her seat, Eliza pretends she is a TV star during opening credits, her face caught in freeze-frame. She imagines her name appearing below her face in bold white letters.
Sinna spells IMMANENT without the second M. She is already walking back to her seat when Dr. Morris says, "I'm afraid that's incorrect." It gets very quiet, like at the beginning of a blackout before anyone has thought to fetch a flashlight. Sinna walks offstage biting her lower lip.
Brad is next, but he is so surprised by Sinna getting out that he has to ask for POSSIBILITY three times before he spells it with one S. Despite his assertions to the contrary, he also believes that Sinna is the smarter one. Which just leaves Eliza, who spells CORRESPONDENCE with her eyes closed to avoid looking at three rows of students staring at her in disbelief.
In Eliza's fantasy she walks to the podium, which she is suddenly tall enough to see over, and begins speaking to a cafeteria suddenly filled to capacity.
A few of you might know my name, but most of you don't even recognize me. I know you, though. And what I'm about to say is as important to you as it is to me.
It's the lead-in to a speech from a particularly powerful after-school special. Eliza's always thought it made a great beginning. No actual words come after that, but Eliza's mouth keeps moving and the music swells. By the end, all the students are smiling with little tears in their eyes and Lindsay Halpern makes a place for Eliza at her table between her and Roger Pond.