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A Child Who Lacks Promise Achieves Industry: Review of Bee Season, a Novel by Myla Goldberg


Fourth-grader Eliza Naumann was passed over for Talented and Gifted Testing (TAG). The principal explained to her disappointed parents that she lacked "promise." Dejected herself, Eliza inadvertently discovered a way to prove them wrong. Myla Goldberg’s first novel, Bee Season (Random House, 2000), illustrates a young girl’s unusual way of overcoming a sense of inferiority and achieving industry.

Eliza’s over-achieving parents include a studious Jewish theologian father and an obsessive-compulsive mother who is a successful lawyer. Her older brother, Aaron, who was labeled as talented and gifted, is the family’s golden child, the one who carries all the hope that Eliza lacks.

When Eliza’s fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Bergermeyer, introduces a weekly spelling bee, Eliza finds that she has a facility for spelling. From being the last student standing in her class’s bees, she advances to local, state, and national competition. She is so afraid of breaking the spell of her new-found "promise," that she does not tell her parents about the first local bee she attends. She gets Aaron to drive her; when she comes home with the trophy, the word is out and her parents are thrilled.

Erik Erikson believed that children pass through psychosocial stages of development. He theorized that the child (and, later, the adolescent and adult) confronts a specific crisis as society imposes demands in each of eight stages of development. The resolution of each crisis may or may not be successful, but triumphs at earlier stages lay the groundwork for the negotiation of later stages. He also believed that society has evolved ways for people to meet these needs. They include the care giving of parents, social and religious organizations, and educational programs.

School is the main domain in which children ages 6 to 12 years seek to achieve industry, Erickson’s fourth psychosocial stage. During this stage, school is the child’s equivalent of an adult’s work. Children need to acquire skills that will prepare them to make meaningful contributions to society. If children do not do well in school, they need to find compensatory ways to achieve a sense of mastery.

On the day when her fellow fourth-graders are called out, one by one, for TAG testing, Eliza is overlooked. She feels a sense of what Erikson termed inferiority. She feels doomed to play second fiddle to her bright brother. She feels shamed that she, the daughter of academically brilliant parents, is a mediocre student. But her mastery of spelling, discovered by chance, is her ticket out of mediocrity.

Her father, intrigued by her skill, gets involved in her "training" (too involved, as it later appears). To his query as to how Eliza accounts for her spelling ability, Eliza says she listens to the word as the announcer speaks it; then, she said, she lets the words "speak" to her. She explained that she sees the letters dancing around in her head and watches them fall into place in the correct order. Then she calls out the letters as she sees them. Her explanation is reminiscent of how some math savants try to describe their facility with complex math problems. Eliza has achieved industry—she has achieved a sense of skill that gains her respect at school and at home.

Eliza’s success and notoriety throw the family into turmoil, demonstrating, rather dramatically, how family dynamics are threatened when one member steps out of their normal role. Aaron is not happy at no longer being the star of the family, so he begins to dabble in drugs and mysticism. Her mother’s ability to keep her obsessive-compulsive disorder in check (which Eliza first noticed when she found her mother scrubbing floors and counters when she should have been sleeping) collapses and she suffers a psychotic break and forced hospitalization. And her father concentrates all his energy on making Eliza a national champ after she loses in the final round of the fourth-grade nationals in Washington, D.C. He preps her through the summer prior to Eliza’s entering fifth grade for what, he thinks, will be a championship season.

All of this turmoil is not lost on Eliza. She begins to resist her father’s training. She blames herself for her mother’s hospitalization and her brother’s going off the deep end. She feels guilty for all the trouble she feels that she has caused. The night before the first spelling bee in her fifth grade class, she sleeps fitfully and has nightmares suggesting the chaos in her family.

Eliza’s father and brother insist on being present for what they expect will be her first step to the fifth-grade national championship. As the class rises to participate in the spelling bee, it is presumed that Eliza will be the last student standing. Asked to spell "origami," Eliza does not close her eyes, or empty or mind, or concentrate and wait for the letters to dance before her. She has already picked the letters. Facing her father, she says resolutely, "origami. O-R-I-G-A-M-Y. Origami." Her schoolmates are shocked. Her father gasps. Her teacher asks, "Are you sure?" giving Eliza an opportunity to correct her mistake, even though that would be against the rules. Eliza nods her head. Yes, she is sure.

With this deliberate error, Eliza achieves another kind of industry—mastery over the forces that had taken her love of spelling and turned the family upside down and made her its new focus. From the standpoint of Eriksonian theory, Eliza seems poised to negotiate the next crisis, that of identity versus identity confusion, in which the task is to find out who she is and to be true to herself. She has taken some control over her life and the forces that, if unchecked, would derail her efforts to achieve her own integrated sense of self.

Elaine Cassel, Marymount University and Lord Fairfax Community College

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