With a population of just 5,500, ours could be a small town anywhere . . . with orange-vested monitors in the school crosswalk knowing almost every child who sets off for school, with the gas-station attendant coming out to talk about the weather or the Turkey Shoot coming up next week as he clean your windshield, with the bartender at your favorite watering hole asking about your grand kids or the friend who is back from surgery and doing just fine (but can’t drink anymore . . .) Of course, with an industry such as ours we have our share of “shop-talk”, meeting other vineyard managers or winemakers and talking about the vintage or bottling line woes at the Post Office (we have one, open 9-5 Monday through Friday with two windows open) or bank (we have 6 – for reasons unknown to us all!). But somehow we all meet up in our daily circle of life, waving to locals amidst a sea of tourists as we drive through the three blocks of Main Street doing our daily errands.
So it was with great honor that I strolled into the St. Helena Elementary School auditorium, with rows of 1940’s wooden seats low to the ground and an elevated stage with massive velvet curtains, to take my place as a Judge for the St. Helena Junior Women’s Club 39th Annual Vintage Spelling Bee. In the audience were friends from all walks of life, their children or grandchildren seated nervously on the stage. Sitting next to me on the judging panel was the St. Helena High School Librarian and a local dentist (who also moonlights as the High School baseball coach), while the St. Helena Women’s’ Club President (and our winery's Wine Compliance officer) led the proceedings and introduced the announcer, the Children’s Librarian, (a good friend and neighbor who knew each child in the auditorium from birth) from the St. Helena Public Library – just chosen as one of the top small libraries in the nation!
The students were cautioned to look directly at the announcer (who was behind the podium off to the side) and not out into the audience filled with moms and dads and baby brothers and sisters, and the judges were warned not to mouth the spelling of the word along with the student or cringe or shake our heads and give away the answers (which we had graciously been given on a 5 page hand-out, in large type!) like the local veterinarian had done in a past Spelling Bee!
Fourteen 5th grade students sat nervously on stage, some in that day’s school clothes others dressed in their Sunday best, moving to the empty chairs at the back of the stage one by one as they miss-spelled a word - some out of nervousness, others because of the difficulty of the word. “Pierce” and “Stubble” got a couple, then “Prairie” got a few more, but “Lobbyist” caused them to drop like flies, even though one creative finalist searched deep into her Latin language skills and spelled it “Lawbiouyest”.
The finalist was awarded his plaque, which was immediately taken away so that they could engrave his name on the front with the 38 other winners, and we all agreed that as judges we were lucky not to have had to challenge any spelling errors or be the cause of any more nervousness or tears. A good night had been had by all, and our small town had once more come together for a successful evening of supporting our children. I was proud to have been a part of this moment in our community’s life . . . and thankful that we never got to the last page and “Mayonnaise”, which I know I would have missed! (two n’s – really?)