Wordplay

QUITS. Triple letter score on the Q, double word score on top of that.
“He’s my protégé,” English teacher Jordan Ethe said of Justin Yadegar ’12, who just scored 46 points for team Ethe with a mere five-letter word.

For the teachers who gather on Friday afternoons in the Middle School library to play Scrabble™, the game is an educational experience. They keep dictionaries and “cheat sheets” (with lists of all two and three-letter words in addition to all four letter words with X, J and Z) open so that the game is about learning new words. They encourage students to join.  In fact, they wouldn’t let me just report, as a fly on the wall — I needed to play with them. And embarrass myself.

I was seated next to English teacher Chitra Kallay, librarian Carolyn Zucker and across from Ethe, an English teacher. I thought that playing against those whose jobs depended on their knowledge of words would ensure my swift loss, but I was apparently wrong.

“Math and science teachers win every time,” Zucker said, giving me (false) hope.

“Humanities teachers search for the most beautiful word to put on the table,” Kallay explained, “while math and science teachers look for what will give them the most points.”

Indeed, the unofficial champion of the Scrabblers is Director of Studies and physics teacher Dr. Deborah Dowling. Her use of words like “ebonizing” (to stain black) and “zinnias” (a perennial plant native to tropical America) on triple word-score regions, earning her more than 100 points for each word, have become memorable moments in the group’s recent history.

As I was deciding whether “kite” or “tiki” would get me more points (I was crippled, with 2 Vs, an F, T, K, I and a P), one of those memorable moments happened at the table behind me.

Middle School Mathematics Chair Robert Pavich didn’t know that “cocoyams” was a real word. But since it turns out that a cocoyam is the edible and starchy root of the taro plant, he not only got 29 points for the ridiculous word, but a bonus of 50 (called a bingo) for using all of his letters.

His opponents, librarian Maxine Lucas and math teachers Kay Carlson and Susan Olson (their eventual champion), were consoled only by the Godiva chocolates Kallay brought.

“It’s the only time you’re allowed to eat in the library,” Ethe said.

As Yadegar was about to place the word “salads” on the board, Zucker saw the opportunity for a teaching moment.

“Don’t waste your second ‘s’ if it’s not going to help you get a double or triple letter score. It’s better to save it for later,” Zucker hinted.

Ethe was the only player who refused to use the dictionary or the cheat-sheets (though Zucker insisted that they were not called cheat-sheets). Looking up at Yadegar, he explained, “We will not go fishing for words in the dictionary! We are men!”

That sentiment may have cost him the game, though. He was beat by Zucker with a difference of only three points, 141 to 138. Kallay beat Zucker with a 30-point margin (words like “coyote” and “zin” boosted her), and I was very much in last with 82 points. Kallay, my eighth grade English teacher, more than doubled my score. It didn’t help that my longest word was only four letters — dome — and only got me 17 points at that.
Olson won at the opposite table with a bingo (her second of the game).

Zucker, the organizer of the weekly games, started playing at Harvard-Westlake years ago when students Matt Thayer ’00 and Alex Robbins ’00 challenged her after school on Fridays. Now, there are about a dozen teachers that Zucker invites in a Wednesday e-mail to play every Friday.

“We play because we love words,” Zucker said.

“Or,” Kallay added, “because we love a challenge.”