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Schooled at Scrabble

My fellow teachers were insistent. But was it fair for me to play?

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When they ask me, I smile, and politely decline.

"No, join us," they say. "We like to play each day at lunch."

These are my fellow teachers at the high school in Mokhotlong, up in the eastern mountains of Lesotho, a tiny enclave surrounded by South Africa. Mapola teaches math; Ntheola, chemistry; Duma, civics; Mothibeli, English; Makheta and Makashane, computer science. These six friendly Basotho are trying to get me into a friendly game of Scrabble.

"It is so important," they tell me, "to refresh the mind during lunchtime."

These are men I have known for only a short time, and they have been very kind in welcoming me to the high school. I feel it would be impolitic for me to waltz into the lunchtime men's club and dominate the Scrabble board. But they are insistent and I finally cave, not wanting to seem standoffish.

I decide on a few personal ground rules: No showoff words. Definitely no challenging anyone's words. Don't win by too much. Have fun, and be gracious in victory. I take a look at the game. The board is held together with masking tape, and the racks for the tiles are missing. Duma holds his pieces cupped in his hands. Makashane has his tiles tucked into the felts of an upside-down chalkboard eraser.

Maybe the word to describe my condition would be PRE-GLOATING, which is not an acceptable Scrabble play, since it is both hyphenated and also not a real word.

Then the game begins, and these guys start dropping words like DATUM and XYLEM. They're not just hitting the words, they're hitting double- and triple-word scores, making two and three horizontal words with every vertical one. Within minutes, I am trailing by 40 points, then 80. I am flailing, undone.

On one turn, I lay out the word TREE. Mothibeli, who is sitting next to me, helpfully notes that I can use my S to make it TREES and reach a double-word score. I am a charity case. I am a nonentity.

And then the trash talk starts. Makashane hits a triple-word score and Ntheola exclaims, "Ah, the wonders of the Lord will never cease!" Makheta lays down a bogus word, is challenged, and loses his turn. This prompts Mapola to comment: "He has been smote!"

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