#TBT: The Nun Who Ruined My Spelling Bee Career


Back in the sixth grade, I was an enormous bookworm.

This is not news for the few of you who witnessed my reading habits firsthand during my junior high years at Blessed Sacrament Elementary (and still do to this day). My voracious appetite for horror novels, as well as an occasional bag of Cool Ranch Doritos, was obvious.

Being a rabid reader arguably correlated with my sterling spelling skills in school. There was no spelling test on which I scored below 100%, and if you need proof, I'm sure I have some old papers buried in boxes labeled "Hiko's Old Spelling Tests On Which He Never Scored Below 100%."

Before I turned 12, Blessed Sacrament Elementary held a spelling bee for Grades 6 through 8. Each class conducted its own preliminary round, and from there, entered its top ten spellers into a schoolwide competition, which took place on the stage of our auditorium.

Up until this moment, this was the most nervous I had ever been in my Catholic school education. I sat in the back row, watching the 29 of the best spellers in the school go up to the microphone and carefully pronounce the letters of words. Sometimes I thought to myself, I could totally spell those. I made it through words like "subtle," "conflagration," and "abstract." Every time a student misspelled a word, one of the faculty members rang a bell, and said student would walk off the stage and take his or her seat in Reject Row.

As I watched the group shrink as the minutes went by, I felt my confidence grow. You got this, Mitsuzuka. Before I knew it, we were down to ten survivors. We changed seats, the remaining spellers shifting up to the front row. And then there were six...then three...

My competition was a pair of eighth graders. We'll call them Luke and Abby. Luke was a jock, the older brother of someone from my grade. Abby was a tall nerdgirl who seemed nice; I just knew her as That Tall Girl. We took turns at the mic, spelling out words we would never use in our everyday conversations. Apparently -- and I just found this out the day of the competition -- the two remaining spellers would advance to a citywide spelling bee. This only added to my nerves.

And then, just like that, Abby was out, incorrectly spelling a word that I would have gotten wrong myself. (Whew!) The crowd applauded. I shook hands with Luke. We were the Blessed Sacrament champions.

Next up: The City Spelling Bee!

Blessed Sacrament hosted this competition, so it helped that I got to compete on the same stage in a familiar setting. But it only helped so much. I knew I would have to go up against kids from other schools (public schools?), faces and names I didn't know. I wouldn't be familiar with their strengths and weaknesses. I would be going into this with even more uncertainty. During the days leading up to it, I had to study a book of words, all listed in alphabetical order. I absorbed as much as I could.


Luke and I hardly had any interaction the days before the city spelling bee. After all, he was two years older than me, and in elementary school, that's like a decade in age. We did exchange a few words of encouragement here and there. I wondered if he was preparing as much as I was, but something told me that he didn't take the whole thing seriously. He probably had basketball tournaments to worry about, girls to flirt with.

The night of the city spelling bee arrived. It felt weird to be back in school at night. Everything looked different. Dark classrooms took on an ominous feel. (I also loved horror movies.)

The whole competition went by in a blur. I kept to myself before we started. I didn't want to look at who I was up against. A new group of us all took the stage, and we quickly started dropping like flies. Luke only made it halfway through. He misspelled a word I remembered from my study guides. I felt bad for him.

Long story short (too late, I know), I won the city spelling bee. Next up: Districts!

And here's where the devastation comes into play...

Districts -- it sounded so official and grown-up to me -- took place at Stepinac High School in White Plains, a 25-minute drive from New Rochelle. My mom drove me on a blustery late afternoon. We checked in; I was given a numbered badge that I wore on my chest like a marathon runner. This is legit, I thought to myself.

The auditorium was also legit, with real theater seats and a balcony. The judges table stood front and center, just below the stage. Sitting there was a man in a tweed jacket, a middle-aged woman who looked like she shopped at Ann Taylor, and an elderly nun. Let's call this nun Sister Dementia.

The competition started off well. I breezed through my first two words. However, my third word was where things went awkwardly wrong.

I walked up to the mic and looked down at Sister Dementia who was to give me my word. She consulted a sheet of paper with a bony finger, looked up at me, and said into her mic, "Pursue." Her voice was a little shaky, probably tired from teaching all day at the all-boys high school we were currently congregating in.

"Pursue?" I repeated.

"Pursue," she confirmed.

Easy enough, I thought to myself. I knew what the word meant. I didn't need to ask for a definition or for its origins. Pursue: as in, "to chase or go after something." No one had to use it in a sentence for me. I got this.

"Pursue," I began. "P-U-R-S-U-E. Pursue."

Sister Dementia looked at her judging colleagues. A dramatic pause followed. And then, a bell rang. The bell. The sound that killed all spelling bee championship dreams.

I let out an audible, surprised "oh" and looked out into the crowd. There were a few murmurs. I could hear my mother in the audience let out a "tsk" of disappointment, but she wasn't disappointed in me, because she, along with the entire auditorium, knew that I spelled the word correctly.

I started to walk off the stage. Someone in the crowd said, "He spelled the word correctly!" I immediately felt a tension in the large room. Before I could take a seat next to my mom, who was clearly frustrated, the judge in the tweed jacket spoke into his mic to offer some clarification: "We had to let Competitor Number 35 go because he spelled the wrong word. The word was pursuit. P-U-R-S-U-I-T."

11-year-old Hiko didn't know what to say. But today's Hiko would've said, "Are you fucking kidding me?"

I felt numb. The fact that I was taken out of the competition for spelling the wrong word correctly was later infuriating, especially for my mom. I was let go because an elderly woman, who clearly missed her Metamucil shot earlier that day, didn't clearly pronounce my word. "If she can't speak up and annunciate," my mother later said to another parent in the hallway, "then she needs to retire." In other words: Nun, bye.

Apparently there was nothing we could do afterwards. I didn't use my life lines and ask for the word to be used in a sentence to make sure the word I heard was the word being said. For the next several days, I was haunted by the word "pursue" as well as the "what ifs" that eventually followed. What if I had asked for it in a sentence? What if I had spelled it correctly? Could I have won that spelling bee? Could I have advanced to County? To State? To Nationals? Could I have been invited to the White House? I'll never know. It's a minor regret that still lingers throughout my adult life. Lesson learned, I guess: If you're not sure about something, always ask for help.

Whatever. I hope that Sister Dementia later realized the gravity of her poor speaking skills that day. I hope she went back to her convent, cried into her pillow, and asked God to forgive her "for misleading that adorable, chubby Asian boy."

But then again, that was so long ago. She's probably dead now.

@TheFirstEcho

VICE News in Charlottesville: The Horrifying Coverage


This is the scariest piece of television I've seen in a while -- absolutely horrifying, disgusting, infuriating, and soul-crushing.

That said, I usually try to use the right words during sensitive situations like these, but if it wasn't clear before, here it is: I hate our president.

I hate that I have to even use that word because it breeds nothing good, but it is what I'm feeling right now.

I hate that this cruelty has been exercised in his name.

I hate that his reaction to this evil is a mediocre, cowardly, and selfish attempt at being neutral.

I hate that, in less than a year, the escalation of evil in this country -- and in some parts of the world -- is undoubtedly a direct correlation to his rise in power. (It all trickles down from The Top.)

I hate that my friends in other cities will have to brace themselves for similar acts of evil planned for this weekend.

But I don't want this hate I'm feeling to inform what I do next. And at least I can take comfort in knowing that the hate I'm feeling will never manifest into what was displayed in these horrific 22 minutes of footage on HBO's Vice. It may very well turn into hopelessness, because right now, I can't see any light at the end of this long and dark tunnel.

Sorry, "Despacito," THIS is My Summer Jam


The music video for Jax Jones's "Instruction" (featuring Demi Lovato and Stefflon Don) dropped a week ago, and finally, I have some visual evidence to support my argument for the Summer Song of 2017.

The 30-year-old English DJ enlisted the "Sorry Not Sorry" singer for this reggaeton-infused, cardio-friendly single, which is sadly only burning up the UK and being delayed to officially make a splash on our American summer charts. Get with it, people.

@TheFirstEcho

This is Charlottesville, VA in 2017 -- Not 1957


Today in WTF is Going on in America?: This story right here. And here.

And in response, @JuliusGoat had some words to say on Twitter this morning:

“Imagine if these people ever faced actual oppression.
Nobody is trying to legislate away their right to marry. Nobody is trying to make them buy insurance to pay for 'male health care.'
Nobody enslaved their great-grandparents. Robbed their grandparents. Imprisoned their parents. Shot them when unarmed. There is no massive effort at the state and local level to disenfranchise them of the vote. There is no history of centuries of bad science devoted to 'proving' their intellectual inferiority.
There is no travel ban on them because of their religion. There is no danger for them when they carry dangerous weaponry publicly.
Their churches were never burned. Their lawns never decorated with burning crosses. Their ancestors never hung from trees.
Their mothers aren't being torn away by ICE troopers and sent away forever. They won't be forced to leave the only country they ever knew.
The president has not set up a hotline to report crime committed at their hands.
They are chanting 'we will not be replaced.' Replaced as ... what? I'll tell you.
Replaced as the only voice in public discussions. Replaced as the only bodies in the public arena. Replaced as the only life that matters.
THIS is 'white people' oppression: We used to be the only voice. Now we hold the only microphone.
THIS is 'white man' oppression: We face criticism now. We were free from it, because others feared the consequences.
THIS is 'oppression' of white Christians in this country: Christmas used to be the only holiday acknowledged, now it's not.
I would so love to see these people get all the oppression they insist they receive, just for a year. Just to see.
Give them a world where you ACTUALLY can't say Christmas. A world where the name "Geoff" on a resume puts it in the trash.
Give them a world where they suddenly get a 20% pay cut, and then 70 women every day tell them to smile more.
Give them a world where their polo shirt makes people nervous, so they're kicked off the flight from Pittsburgh to Indianapolis.
Give them a world where they inherited nothing but a very real understanding of what oppression really fucking is.
Give them a world where if they pulled up on a campus with torches lit and started throwing hands, the cops would punch their eyes out.
-->
Put THAT in your Tiki torches and light it, you sorry Nazi bitches. Good morning, by the way, how is everybody?"

A Letter From The Stranger Who Moved Into My Childhood Home


Last month, I posted a letter I had written to the woman who purchased the apartment my Florida-bound parents have called home since I was 6 years old. (You can read it here.)

Today, I was pleasantly surprised to find her response waiting in my inbox. And after reading it, I was even more pleased to hear that this stranger and I have a few things in common.

Here's what she wrote...


Subject: Greetings from Apartment 3D

Dear Hiko, 

Thank you so much for your congratulatory wishes! It took me over a year to find a home that I loved as much as Colonial House. The building, the neighborhood, and especially the apartment itself, has real charm! Thank you so much for the tips about the area. It's been fun exploring all the different restaurants and shops. If the weather is nice this weekend, I'm definitely going to take your advice and head to Glen Island Park.

I really enjoyed reading your letter. I can certainly relate to your feelings because I am in a similar situation with my own family. After almost 30 years, my parents are selling the house that I grew up in. They will be moving to Florida early 2018, and as we clean out the house, I start to recall lots of memories - holiday dinners, birthday parties, fighting with my brother and sister, the day my hamsters got out of their cage... you get the point. We didn't have Meatloaf Wednesdays, but we did have Turkey Burger Thursdays! Either way, I understand your sentimental attachment to the home you grew up in, and you've inspired me to write a letter to the future owners of that house. It might give me a little closure when I have to say goodbye.

It was a real pleasure meeting your parents. We had the opportunity to chat a little during the closing and they are very lovely people. Your mother even left me all the takeout menus - which have certainly come in handy!

I am happy you got to say your goodbyes to 3D, but if you find yourself in the area and would like to visit, please feel free to reach out. In the meantime, I promise to take great care of your childhood home. Please tell your parents I said hello. 

Take care! 

Sincerely, 
A.

P.S. The ghost says hello!

*     *     *

That all said, the fact that she plans to pay it forward with a welcome letter of her own? Kind of warms my heart. It's like a lovely bow on top of this act of closure. And even better, I'm thankful for her open invitation to come back someday and revisit the rooms that held so many memories for me and my family.

I'll gladly accept it.

@TheFirstEcho

5 Things The 'Fear Street' Movies Should Include


Ever since news dropped that Fox is developing not one, not two, but three (3!) theatrical films based on R.L. Stine's uber-popular YA horror book series from the 90s, Fear Street, my mind has been a whirlwind of fanboy-fueled possibilities.

To say I'm well-versed in this horror universe would be an understatement. The history and proof of my devotion can be found HERE and HERE -- in addition to the below photo of one of my bookcases at home and a framed, signed letter from R.L. Stine from 1992. Therefore, I would like to offer some unsolicited advice and guidance for the producers and Hollywood puppet masters behind this ambitious adaptation. I hope I speak for millions of others who came of age while reading these books when I say: please don't fuck this up.

There's still time to ensure that this impending franchise will live up to the enormous fanticipation surrounding it. Director Leigh Janiak is reportedly overseeing "a writers room of sorts" as she develops three stories simultaneously for Chernin Entertainment, the production company responsible for bringing this series to the big screen. That said, if there is room for a consultant on the Fear Street team, please feel free to contact me. (My bio can be found on the right side of this page, and my day rate is reasonable.)

In the meantime, here are five things to keep in mind...

A mere sampling of my R.L. Stine collection.

1. ESTABLISH A SHADYSIDE CINEMATIC UNIVERSE -- While most of the Fear Street novels each included a self-contained story, there were rarely any recurring characters mentioned in other books. Notable hotspots within the town of Shadyside were revisited (Pete's Pizza! The Division Street Mall!) but it wasn't until Stine introduced the Fear Street Seniors in 1998 when readers were able to follow the same characters throughout multiple novels (notwithstanding trilogies like 99 Fear Street and Fear Park). It can be assumed that these "bingeable" movies will set up a world in which characters are linked together by one overarching story -- and this could be a good thing. With so many titles in the series, Fear Street has the potential to be the Marvel of YA horror pulp fiction on the big screen. Just think: what would it look like if Silent Night's spoiled rich girl Reva Dalby were invited to vengeful Justine Cameron's Halloween Party where she can brush shoulders with some of those possessed Cheerleaders?

2. FEATURE A DESCENDANT OF THE FEAR FAMILY -- Anyone familiar with the mythology of the series knows that the titular street of horrors was named after the Fear family, a dynasty dating back to colonial times. (It's all chronicled in the 1993 Fear Street Saga trilogy and spinoff series of the same name.) And since it's been reported that the three films will "take place in different time periods," one would assume that an origin story surrounding this troubled family could very well be told, either in flashbacks or in its own singular movie. Either way, it would be a great way to pay respects to the past.

3. DESIGN A PRINT CAMPAIGN THAT PAYS HOMAGE TO THE ARTWORK OF THE ORIGINAL PAPERBACKS -- Bill Schmidt, the artist behind most of Fear Street's iconic book covers, managed to capture the pulpy and melodramatic sensibility of the stories. Characters were posed in dangerous situations behind titles that were printed in a paint-slashed font. (*Fun Fact: I went to high school with a girl who modeled for the covers of The Confession and 99 Fear Street: The Second Horror. It always felt as if I were one degree of separation away from R.L. Stine.) Therefore it would serve fans well to create movie posters that paid tribute to these memorable pieces of cover art. **Another Fun Fact: I happen to know and work with the talented team at the busterINK division of promo powerhouse Stun Creative. (Again, see my bio to the right.) Hint, hint, Chernin Entertainment.

4. AN R RATING WOULD BE NICE -- Unlike Stine's kid-friendlier Goosebumps series, the Fear Street novels were filled with bloody details of teens dying at the hands of vengeful spirits, maniacal madmen, and each other. Murder was always on the menu in every installment, but given the box office potential of this new franchise, it seems most likely that the studio will want a PG-13 rating to reach the broadest audience possible. Sure, PG-13 thrillers could work, but they run the risk of watering down the content, especially if it's adapted from an existing property known for its violent material. That said...

5. DELIVER SOME STRAIGHT-UP SCARY FUN -- There's an opportunity here to make horror exciting again, just like Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson did with Scream 21 years ago. Sure, there could be some irreverent winks to the genre peppered throughout, but overall, it's all about striking the right balance in tone. Most importantly, it should be scary and deliver thrills that can reach old fans and titillate a new generation. And if Leigh Janiak's creepy Honeymoon is any indication, this franchise should be in good hands.

@TheFirstEcho