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Spelling champ, 40 years ago

Feb 28, 2014 - By Steven R. Peck

Forty years ago this week, my father took a picture. It's of me at age 12 (I became a teenager two weeks later), the day I won the Fremont County spelling contest in late February 1974.

In the photo, the small first-place medal was pinned to my shirt. From the looks of it, I must have done the pinning myself. My dad, who had won the same award in 1937, said "show me the medal," so I opened my blue down-filled winter coat and hammed it up a little while he took the picture.

To my surprise, the picture appeared prominently the next day on the front page of The Ranger. The late Carolyn B. Tyler was the editor then, and she took the position that if the boss's kid accomplished something, then it ought to be played up prominently in the newspaper.

That view put her at odds with my mother -- not something any Ranger staffer ever wanted to do in those days. Cordelia Peck thought it was bad form for me or my brothers ever to be featured in The Ranger because she thought other parents would assume the paper was playing favorites and that it would be resented.

I wasn't thrilled about that picture either, but it wasn't because of my mother's apprehensions (or my stringy hair).

It was because I was in junior high school , and my locker was in the "eighth-grade hall."

The old Riverton Junior High in 1974 was the building that now is home to Rendezvous School. Today it houses third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders. Back then it housed seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders.

Many things about public education have changed since then. One of them is how lockers are assigned. Nowadays kids are given lockers among their classmates. In fact, in most elementary and middle schools today the kids in one grade aren't allowed to have much contact with kids in other grade.

That was far from the case in 1974, and my seventh-grade locker was right next to the locker of one of the biggest, meanest, toughest -- and oldest -- ninth-graders in school. Everyone knew him, and often not in a good way. I had seen him get into at least a half-dozen fights -- in the school parking lot, at Friday night football games, on the school bus, and, one right in the middle of the north-to-south stretch of tile, bricks and fluorescent tubing we called eighth-grade hall.

Younger kids viewed it as a no-man's land in terms of discipline. It was long, loud and crowded, with precious little adult supervision as I remember it. If you were a skinny 12-year-old with the aforementioned stringy hair, the objective each day at lunchtime or before and after school was to get through eighth-grade hall without attracting the notice of the many 15-year-old freshmen who towered over me, had learner's permits, and shaved most mornings.

Obviously, one of the very worst ways to avoid attracting attention in eighth-grade hall was to have a big picture of yourself on the front page of the paper, mugging for the camera and showing a medal on your shirt that you had won the day before by spelling "opiate."

In particular, I didn't want my locker neighbor to notice.

But he did. He noticed.

In fact, when I skulked down eighth-grade hall the next morning, he was waiting for me. And he had a clipping of the front page in his hand.

Today, I would admire and appreciate it if a ninth-grade student had noticed something on page one, clipped it out and brought it to school. In February 1974, though, admiration and appreciation weren't on my mind.

"This guy is going to kill me." That's what I was thinking.

He stepped in front of me, brandishing the clipping.

"Where's your medal?" he said, pulling open my navy blue winter coat. "Let's see that medal."

"I didn't wear it to school."

Kids were hustling to get to class, and I knew he'd need to hurry if he were going to break my glasses or pull all my stuff out of my locker onto the floor (one of his favorite tricks) before the bell rang.

Instead, he surprised me.

"Good job on that," he said.

He turned and started fiddling with his locker combination. Then, without looking back at me, he said, "I wish I could spell better."

Hearing the bell, I hurried away to my classroom. I had survived.

I wish I could conclude by telling readers that this heartwarming moment of adolescent bonding was the beginning of a friendship between the older guy and me. But it didn't. He ransacked my locker a couple more times before the year was out, and I continued to avoid him whenever possible.

My parents took me on to the big state spelling bee a couple of weeks later at the state Capitol in Cheyenne. I made it to the oral round of 10, spelled "poliomyelitis" right, but went down on "trellis," of all things.

When I missed it, I heard my mother's angry stage whisper ring down from the balcony gallery when I botched the simple word. "Steven!" she said. I can still hear it as plainly as the day it happened.

No medal this time around, or page-one picture, either. Probably just as well. If my mother were that disgusted with me, imagine how my locker neighbor would have felt.

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