Spell precocious

    Trainspotting is a new fiction series focusing on imagined accounts of real patrons of the New York City subway. Kayleigh Roberts is on her journalism residency in New York, and the stories are based on her experiences people watching/daydreaming on the train.


    “Allie, explain to me why that’s how you think it’s spelled.”

    “Well…” the little girl started. “Because of ‘Belgium.’ The beginning of the words sounds like the end of ‘Belgium.’”

    The woman thought this over for a moment, taking it seriously, then smiled. “Well, you’re absolutely right, Allie. The beginning of ‘jambalaya’ does kind of sound like the end of ‘Belgium.’”

    Allie beamed. This was a good day. It was all for play today. She kicked her feet excitedly, swinging them because they didn’t yet reach the floor of the subway car when she sat back in her seat. Looking at her, you would never guess she was the champion speller for her age group or that she won geography contests or could read on a fifth grade level — which was impressive considering she was just six years old. Allie had an IQ of 130, but that didn’t translate to high fashion sense.

    She, like any six-year-old given free reign over her own wardrobe, dressed in a hodgepodge of things she liked, regardless of how they looked when paired with one another. She wore her black shoes — the clunky ones that she could pretend were tap shoes when Ms. Hatfield wasn’t around — and her bright yellow socks, because, with the black, they made her feet look like bumblebees. This combination allowed her to pretend (when she wasn’t tapping of course) that she was flying on the backs of two bumblebees, like Thumbelina might, if there were no butterflies available. Her pants were blue fleece and printed with dozens of miniature skiers — they were warm and Allie liked to name the skiers and imagine their life stories when people told her to sit still. Her shirt was a zipper pullover that she didn’t particularly care for, but it was warm and Ms. Hatfield had warned her to dress warm today. Finally, there was her gray and black striped hat. She hated the hat, but she never left home without it on.

    “This is our stop, Allie,” Ms. Hatfield, who was tall and thin and always fashionable, said. “For goodness sake, stop daydreaming; we have to go.”

    Allie slid out of the seat and held her hand out for Ms. Hatfield to grab.

    “The correct spelling,” the woman said as she dragged Allie off of the train, “is J-A-M-B-A-L-A-Y-A. Jambalaya. Repeat it.”



    On the walk to the center, Ms. Hatfield quizzed Allie on the spellings of regurgitation, lethargic and carcinogen (all of which she spelled correctly) and the capitals of Somalia, Lithuania and Prague (she missed Lithuania — capital: Vilnius). When they got to the center, they went upstairs to their usual room. It was painted lime green and there were boxes of games – the educational kind – stacked in the back corner. Allie never played the games though. Ms. Hatfield sat her down in her usual seat at the table in the center of the room and they waited for Dr. Ramsey to arrive. He was a little older than Ms. Hatfield, Allie knew, because his hair was speckled with gray and his face wrinkled. He was also always late. Allie hated when he was late because the later the game started, the longer until it was over.

    Allie tugged on Ms. Hatfield’s right sleeve. “Do we have to play today?”

    “Of course we do, Allie,” Ms. Hatfield smiled and rolled her eyes, as if saying ‘silly girl.’ “There’s a competition coming up. You have to practice if you want to win. You want to win, don’t you?”

    “Yeah, but I almost always win. Couldn’t we just practice normal, like while we walk? Or at the park? I like when we practice at the park,” Allie ventured.

    “Now, Allie,” Ms. Hatfield turned and looked deep into her eyes. “You know you learn better this way.”

    “What if I promised to learn better at the park?”

    Ms. Hatfield didn’t answer. She turned away, pulled her shiny gold compact out of her purse and went about touching up her make up. Touching up her make up was Ms. Hatfield’s way of ending a conversation. Finally, Dr. Ramsey entered the room.

    “How are you today, Allie?” He said in his happy voice.

    Allie shrugged and kicked her feet.

    “Ahh, don’t be like that, girl,” he said. “We’re going to play our game. Aren’t you excited?”

    Allie shrugged and kicked her feet.

    “Well, we’re playing anyway, so you should try to be excited. You’ll have more fun that way.”

    He pulled Allie’s chair out from the table and positioned her so that she was facing the front of the room. He slid his leather case down the table to Ms. Hatfield, who clicked her compact shut while he locked the door. Ms. Hatfield opened the bag and removed a large pair of scissors, which she sat on the table, just in Allie’s peripheral vision.

    “Are you ready to start, Allie?”

    Allie shrugged.

    “I’ll take that as a yes,” Dr. Ramsey said. “He pulled a stack of index cards out of his jacket pocket and began. “What is the capital of Lithuania?”

    “Vlinius,” Allie was relieved she’d missed it before and not now.

    “What is the capital of Norway?”


    “What is the official language of Turkey?”


    It went on like this for a half hour – geography trivia, followed by U.S. History trivia (“Who was the 12th president of the United States?” “Taylor.”), followed by literature trivia (“What is Juliet’s surname?” “Capulet.”), followed finally, by spelling. Allie was too young for the Scripps Bee, but she was already in training. Ms. Hatfield was determined she win her first time out. The day had gone so well, but spelling was her worst subject. She thought about the subway, going over jambalaya in her head. “J-A-M-B-A-L-A-Y-A.”

    “Spell prolific.”


    “Spell jubilant.”


    “Spell precocious.”


    “No, Allie. It’s spelled P-R-E-C-O-C-I-O-U-S. Take off your hat.”

    Allie started to cry. She knew better than to sob or throw a tantrum, but she couldn’t help but cry, every time. Her face screwed up, her cheeks puffed out and she bit the inside of her bottom lip, hard. She closed her eyes as the tears streamed out, but she reached up and pulled off the gray and black striped hat that she always wore, even inside. Her hair, blonde and curly, fell out of it, tumbled down to bounce at her shoulders, but only in places. Others, toward the back at first, but lately more and more frequently at the front, were bare. Bald spots that, from a distance wouldn’t stand out among the blonder than blonde curls. Ms. Hatfield grabbed a curl above her left ear and pulled it taut before snipping quickly at the root, leaving a short, frazzled puff where the beautiful curl had been. Allie opened her eyes, relieved that it was over for today, but Ms. Hatfield pulled another piece out, this time from high up on the top of her head.

    “Wait!” Allie screamed. “I only missed one! Just one!”

    “For jambalaya, dear,” Ms. Hatfield cut the hair from Allie’s head. “You didn’t get a single letter right.”


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