On the bus this morning, a man came in pushing two little boys ahead of him. He ferried them into the back row sitting them next to him. The man was wearing a light blue dress shirt with a tie. The shirt was too big for him. It was loose around his arms tapering into his buttoned wrists. The boys were in matching school uniforms and one of them was clutching a sheaf of papers stapled together.
At the top of the page, the heading said: Spelling Bee Sample Words. And below that, in tables, words were listed alphabetically alongside their origins (Latin, Greek, etc.) and the definition of the word.
The bus took a long time to fill up. The man got antsy. He kept looking at his watch then outside at passing cars. When the bus started to move, the boys huddled together to study the pages.
The man paid the bus conductor and turned to the boys. He snatched the paper out of their hands. He ran his finger down the page and said to one of the boys, “Abysmal.”
The boy mouthed the word a few times before spelling it boldly, A-B-E-S-I-M-A-L. The man stared at him for a long time, saying nothing. The boy did not make eye contact. The man sighed. He looked at the list and picked out another word for the boy.
“How about Bedlam?”
Before the boy could reply, the man’s phone rang. The man wrested the phone out of his pocket. He shielded it to read the screen and put it to his ear.
“Good morning, Ma.” he said.
He listened for a while.
“Mummy, these students really disappointed me. I was waiting until eight.”
He listened some more.
“Blessing never showed. I am here with Akande and …”
He put the phone to his shoulder and poked the abysmal speller.
“What is your name?”
“Oladele,” the boy replied.
The man returned to the phone. “I am here with Akande and Oladele.”
He looked from one boy to the other.
“I don’t know, Ma,” he said, “I really don’t see how we will manage without Blessing.”
He shook his head slowly, said goodbye, and hung up.
The man looked out of the window. The road was clear going in the opposite direction. He returned the phone to his pocket and picked up the sheets of paper.
The man turned a couple of pages and said, “Akande, Catastrophe.”
The boy said, “C–A–T–“. He trailed off.
After a long pause, Akande continued.
“No!” The man snapped, “How many times have I told you. Don’t double the letters.”
Oladele snickered. The man swatted him with a backhand. “Stop laughing and support your friend. Don’t you remember how Blessing used to do it?”
The man flipped two more pages. He addressed Oladele. “You, Disaster.”
The boy opened his mouth wide and gave the teacher a blank look.