February 19th……..“DID YOUR MOTHER, CLARICE, EVER TAKE PART IN SPELLING BEES WHEN SHE ATTENDED THE COUNTRY SCHOOL NEAR SCARVILLE, IOWA”?
Cachinnating kids clamored noisily onboard the old, late 1920’s school bus as it made its multiplicity of stops in their small village as well as numerous farms nearby. The loud, ratcheting “AhhOOOgah, AhhOOOgah” horn from their bus driver brought those agrarian angels flying out of their farm houses with books in tow and boys clipping on their last overalls shoulder strap while still on the run!!!
This daily gathering of youngin’s were on their way to one of the country schools just outside the village. Young Clarice was one of those daily riders who, once aboard, squeezed between pals and onto one of the wooden benches that ran the length on each side of that clatter carriage as it bumped and wobbled across the gravel roads near Scarville, Iowa. Windows, on this educational conveyance, were merely openings that allowed the fragrant Iowa winds to course through and cool one and all while they listened to the flibbity gibbit of engine noise up front. That scenario was fine and dandy in the spring and summer months, but Clarice and her fellow riders had to wear layers upon layers of clothing as fall and winter approached with its bone-chilling drop in temperatures. To keep his riders from turning into human popsicles, their bus driver would either button-snap heavy, see-through vinyl curtains into the window openings, or employ wooden-framed slide-in windows that were slid into receiving slots in the bus frame. Some busses of that era even had a drop-down shade/tarp when unexpected cloud bursts of rain flew in across the farmlands. In those days, one had to be tough and endure such conditions during those chilling drives to and from school in inclement weather.
Day in and day out, of that 8th Grade school year, Clarice kept up with her standard list of studies. That young Norwegian girl emulated the 1907 song called, “School Days”, in that she gladly learned her “Reading n ‘riting and ‘rithametic”. But, where she really excelled was the subject of Spelling. In those educational winter moments, the entire class of that country school relished the emanating warmth and accompanying wood fragrances from the pot-bellied stove in that one-room school. That coziness, in turn, made the recurring in-house Spelling Bees even more fun for Clarice and her entire class.
Clarice, being a feminine sprite of a girl, looked forward to these competitions when the school’s lady educator would call her up, along with her challengers, to the front of the classroom. Like little spelling soldiers, they’d line up in front of the classic, old black slate chalkboard for that day’s Spelling Bee.
One by one, the contenders for the title of “champion speller” would fall beneath the deft capabilities of the spelling prowess of “Queen Clarice”. Guess you could say she was the “Queen Bee” of the Spelling Bee there at Scarville school. Even the local newspaper touted Miss Sletten as the “Best Speller at Scarville”.
On that grand day, when Clarice was “crowned” the best speller in town, she could hardly contain herself as that clatterbang of her bus meandered through the dusty country roads and deposited her, that late afternoon, in front of her Grandma Martha Larson Sletten’s home. With her spirit soaring, she sprang from that bus and waved goodbye to friends as her ebullient joy of accomplishment propelled her to find her grandmother in the Living Room sewing on her latest quilt. “Grandma, Grandma……. I WON, I WON the local spelling championship”!!!! Of course, Grandma Martha joined in Clarice’s joy and plans were made for the next step of honor of representing Scarville at the County Spelling Bee to be held in Forest City, Iowa within the week.
The big day in April of 1933 had arrived. Now it was time for her to represent the town of Scarville, which was one of many farming communities of Winnebago County. This spelling gala was to take place at the south border of the county in the distant town of Forest City, Iowa. Our young spelling whiz was on pins n needles as Grandma Martha helped her pick out her best Sunday church dress for this special occasion. With her hair combed and attire looking its best, they heard a gentle knock on the front door of the Sletten home. The soft features through the beveled glass of the front door revealed the arrival of Clarice’s dear teacher who would drive the town spelling queen to the competition in her sharp looking 1929 Chevrolet.
Oh what must have spun through the head of Clarice as they traveled south on those dusty country roads that day. Gazing out her passenger window, she saw arrow straight rows of field-corn that flashed past her eyes in unending acres in what must have been a dizzying optical illusion of green magic. One could surmise, as she daydreamed, that even the founder of their little village, Mr. Ole Scar, would’ve been proud of what our young lady was about to aspire to.
Over 100 young people, from the many hamlets of Winnebago County, were in attendance that special day. Judges, all official looking, were seated at their tables as adjudicators of the hopeful young spellers before them. And so it began. Contestant after contestant stood and received a given word that needed to be spelled correctly. Some were successful and remained in the competition. Others did not do so well and had to take their seats with the audience since they were no longer in the competition. Clarice had held her own in this conquest of words, so far, and saw about 80 of the former candidates eventually fail in their spelling capabilities. Now in the top 20, she had a chance for winning the competition.
Having grown up around her farmer parents, Clarice would listen and learn the ways of farming and how various aspects of farming were portrayed and pronounced by her father. Turns out, there was a type of grass hay that her family often raised for their livestock to eat and was known as Timothy Grass Hay. But, in this occasion, and on this day, a word that her father Clarence used all the time to describe that hay, was to be the downfall of our hopeful champion speller. The judge at the table gave Clarice the word TIMOTHY to spell. In her false confidence, Clarice stood and began……“T H I M O T E E”, was what she spelled (for that had been the way her father, Clarence, had always pronounced that word). The judge at the table was a bit taken back and sadly said, “I’m sorry, Clarice, that is INcorrect, please step down and have a seat in the audience”. Clarice was crushed!!! She was so close to taking home the honor for her school and town, but it just wasn’t to be.
Dejected by this humbling experience, the long ride home was a numbing fog for the young lady in our story. She kept going over and over in her head how her daddy, over the years, had always called that grass hay, Thimotee hay. The judges must have been mistaken.
Clarice’s kind teacher tried to assuage her hurt feelings as they quietly bounced along those gravel roads back to Scarville. By the time they neared their little hamlet, the shadows of evening were capturing what was left of the beautiful farm lands around them.
After effusive thanks to her teacher for investing her day and gas and encouragements during this spelling adventure, Clarice bid her goodnight and headed inside her home to grab a big dictionary to vindicate herself on her spelling fail that day. To her shock and chagrin, the judges had been right all along in their decision……….it was T I M O T H Y.
Even though “humble pie” is not fun to swallow, Clarice went on to graduate from Scarville High School in 1937 and a few years down the road, she met a handsome Norwegian young man and became his wife. And, to no one’s surprise, spelling became one of her most fun things for Clarice to enjoy throughout her 98 years and 3 months of life. She excelled in all the crossword puzzles she could find and conquered word games of every type and sort. Matter of fact, her love of spelling and keeping her brain “sharp” always earned her the loving title of being the “Queen Bee” mother of this Norwegian Farmer’s Son!!! 😉