Spelling Queen Bee

It was a long road to the city-wide Spelling Bee for my fifth grade daughter, Jennifer. And like any competitive event, in the wide world of spelling, there are a lot of factors that determine whether the competitors experience the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat: training, performance under pressure, toughness of the competitors…and a lot of luck.

The entire process began just after the New Year, when Jennifer brought home the same list of six hundred words that was given to every fourth through sixth grade student in the County. In order to move on to the city spelling bee, she would have to first win the spelling bee at her school. She had about six weeks to study the list.

Helping her get ready for the spelling bee was going to take some balance on my part. I wanted her to feel confident. “There’s nothing like knowing you’re well prepared to make you feel less nervous,” I told her in my “mother knows best” tone. But I also had to resist my tendency to get overly zealous about the task at hand. “Ve vill drill until you know these vords forvards und backvards, ja!”

As I started quizzing her, I was surprised by some of the words that were on the list. When does an elementary age student need to know how to spell words like “sacerdotal,” “sauterne,” and “struthious?” And if Jennifer is writing a report about chickens and their “rasorial” method for finding food, she’ll use spell check like everybody else. This made me start to wonder, if spelling bees celebrate a skill that technology has made obsolete, why don’t they have Long Division Bees?

Then I realized that the point of a spelling bee isn’t to learn how to spell archaic words ““ as evidenced by the fact that “struthious” and “rasorial” are not in the spell check dictionary. It’s really a character building exercise. The important part for Jennifer wouldn’t be memorizing how to spell discipline; it’s learning the principle of discipline. She would need to practice a little every day, handle the stress of the competition, and then gracefully accept winning or losing.

By the time the school spelling bee arrived, she had made it through every word on the list once, and if she didn’t get “narcissistic” as her first word, I was pretty sure she would do fine. She surprised herself by spelling “rejuvenate” correctly and then she made it through three more rounds before getting “bougainvillea.” Thankfully, by that time there were only two spellers left, which meant that that both got to advance to the city competition.

The good news for Jennifer was that she had accomplished something that neither of her older siblings could lay claim to, but the bad news was that she (and I) would have to keep studying the list for three more weeks. The next day, I bought a big bag of Jelly Bellys to use as motivation during the nightly ritual of spelling and respelling. Jennifer would have been fine without any treats, but I knew I was going to need the “spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down” technique if I was going to make it through the same 600 words again.

On the day of the city-wide spelling bee, Jennifer had two wishes: first, that she not get eliminated during the first round, and second, that she would have to spell “bougainvillea.” She had vowed that this word wouldn’t take her down a second time.

When we arrived at the spelling bee, the room was buzzing with the energy 52 over-achieving spelling competitors and their parents. Jennifer immediately spotted five trophies on the table. Never mind making it through one round, she now has her heart set on being in the money.

Whether it’s soccer or spelling, there are always some parents who take the whole thing much too seriously. I overhear one mom giving her daughter a last minute quiz, and when she misspells the word, the Mom comments huffily, “Well, we’ll be out of here early!”

The room quiets down as the judge reads the rules. “Words will not be limited to those on the list, but any word the judge deems appropriate.” I know that most the kids in the room can spell all the words on the list in their sleep, but since they can be asked to spell any word in Websters, all bets are off.

The order of the spellers has been randomly assigned. Jennifer was lucky and got number 38 which means that in theory, the 37 kids before her could miss their words, and be eliminated before they even get to her. She makes it through four rounds, correctly spelling “plunder,” “punish,” “liverwurst,” and “reiterate.” However, on round five, the kids ahead of her are dropping like flies with difficult words that were not on the list, such as “corollary,” “synchronize,” and “plethora.” Now only Jennifer and five other kids are left. If she makes it through this round, she knows one of the trophies is her’s.

“Jennifer, your word is “˜succumb.'” Oh, man, I don’t think she has ever even seen that word in print. I’d be squirming in my plastic chair if I wasn’t sweating so much that I was sticking to it. She starts spelling: “s-y-c-o-m-e.” “Good try, but I’m sorry that’s incorrect.”

She makes her way back to where I am sitting, tears welling up in her eyes. We make a dash for the closest exit and the car so she can express her disappointment in private. “Mom, I was one away from winning.” Right now, all the “You did great!” comments in the world won’t make her feel any better. “Let’s go home”¦it’s been a long day.”

After a bath and something to eat, we talk about how she really did her school proud. Yes, if one more speller before her had missed their word, she would have come home with a trophy. But on the other hand, she also could have gotten “carafe” during the first round and not have made it this far.

That night as Jennifer and I say our prayers, I thank God for her perseverance”¦p-e-r-s-e-v-e-r-a-n-c-e. At least I can get her laughing now. “Mom, save it “˜til next year,” she says.

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