Spelling bees are shockingly intense events. I’ve been organizing them at my school for the past few years, and my heart simultaneously breaks for the kids who are eliminated and pounds with anticipation for those who volley through the final, tongue-twisting rounds.
I serve as the pronouncer for our school bees, but I can still see the parents in the audience, nervously clenching their hands and silently mouthing each letter with their children. They are like muted cheerleaders, rocking back and forth on their cold, metal folding chairs.
Now I know how they feel.
Last year Sam represented his second grade class in his school spelling bee, and we were so proud when he made it six full rounds. He could barely reach the microphone, but our little guy surprised everyone by making it so far. Here is a video of him successfully spelling “calculator” in the fifth round:
In the sixth round he flubbed up “thermostat,” but afterwards he happily found us in the crowd and held his certificate with pride as he watched the rest of the bee from my lap. It was a great experience, and we were so proud of him for having the courage to get up there in front of the entire school.
This year he decided to give the spelling bee another try, and was enormously relieved when he earned one of the two coveted spots from his classroom. Apparently the competition was stiff! He took the word list more seriously now that he’s a big third grader, and asked us to quiz him regularly. Sometimes it was comical:
Sam: “Do I have to capitalize it?”
Me: “No, Sam, it’s not the Martian rover. Just the word.”
Sam: “You mean like the air speed velocity of a European swallow?” (Can you hear his dad in that question?)
Me: “Just spell the word, Sam.”
Other times I wanted to strangle him. He’d spell a word wrong, and I’d highlight it and tell him the correct spelling. “That’s what I said!!” he’d declare. “No, Sam, it’s not,” I’d reply. “Yes I did!” We’d argue like teenagers before I’d scream that I refused to help him any longer if he had such an attitude. Finally he would huff and puff and apologize – not because he believed he was wrong, but because he wanted me to keep quizzing him. Maddening, it was.
But in the end he really did know those words. There were two pages of study words, and he easily knew every one on the first page. He knew about half of the second page, but who knew how far the bee would go? As the day of the big bee approached, Sam was both confident and terrified.
Clark and I assumed our places on the metal folding chairs for a second time, once again so proud to see Sam up there before the entire school. This time there was a stool and he could actually reach the microphone!
The bee started with 21 spellers and incredibly easy words. It was painfully slow the first few rounds, with very few students eliminated. But as we entered the 7th round, there were only eight spellers left. Sam was one of them, having successfully spelled “harness” in the 6th round. I knew “harness” was a Page One word, and began to wonder just how far our boy was going to make it.
He approached the microphone for round 7, and was given the word “curiosity.” It made me chuckle, wondering if he would remember not to capitalize it. He smiled as he approached the mike:
“Curiosity. Q-U-R-I-O-S-I-T-Y. Curiosity.”
He looked genuinely shocked when the judges held up the red card, declaring his spelling incorrect. He returned to his seat, biting his lip and swinging his legs through the rest of the round. Now there were 5 left, and Sam wasn’t one of them.
He exited behind the stage, and I was waiting. His eyes welled with tears as I folded him into a hug and declared how proud we were that he had made it so far.
“But I spelled it right!” he cried.
“No, buddy, you spelled it with a Q,” I explained.
“I did?” He really didn’t know.
It took him a few moments to compose himself. “But I knew every word in that round!” he cried. I knew it was true, which made it hard for me too. Clark and I both kept telling him how proud we were, but his disappointment was greater than our praise.
After a few minutes he bravely wiped his eyes and returned to the multipurpose room, where he once again watched the rest of the bee from my lap. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit it cut me to the core, watching kids get eliminated on words I know Sam knew by heart. He should have still been up there. He knew it too. But he’d made a mistake, and his nerves might have interfered with those other words too.
As parents, we get to see the best and worst in our children. Of course we don’t want to advertise the worst, but wouldn’t it be nice if once in a while someone else could see the best? See them at their most brilliant? Their most witty? Their most athletic? Their most empathetic?
I constantly see people underestimate Sam because of his size. He’s among the smallest in his class, he’s soft spoken, and he’s not terribly assertive. He’s also the new kid this year. He spent the first semester trying to earn a spot in the daily recess football games, where most kids assumed he was just a little boy who couldn’t play. In actuality, the kid throws a spiral like he was trained by one of the Manning brothers, and can catch equally as well. And not that it’s important, but he can dance in the end zone with the best of them.
But no one knows this.
The boy has many other talents too. How a child of mine can sing on pitch is beyond me. He has an ear and knack for music that must be from some rogue gene that skipped our generation. He can mimic any accent and picks up on such subtle sounds and tones in our language.
And he’s just brilliant. He’s so well-rounded, with a mind that is wired for math and heart that is passionate about reading. It doesn’t hurt that he has been blessed with a nearly photographic memory, especially when it comes to sports stats. I suppose that memory comes in handy when it comes to spelling words too.
When Sam was eliminated from the spelling bee, he was devastated because he’d missed a word he knew so well. That, and he’d been fantasizing about winning the thing. In his dreams, he was on a plane to DC for the national contest. Did I mention that competitiveness is another of his character traits?
For me, it wasn’t about the competition at all. Okay… I admit… as we entered that 7th round, I did start to wonder if he could actually win the thing. But I certainly wasn’t fantasizing about any future contests.
I just wanted our little boy to have a sliver in time where the entire world could see how incredibly special he is. For all the students and staff to learn his name. For others to see that this small child has enormous courage, determination, and intelligence.
We parents of the folding chairs have a lot in common. We hold up our iPads and try to record every moment, because deep down we know these children are only on loan to us. Someday we will have to set them free, so we work frantically to build their wings, their courage, their strength. We must share them with the world while they are still ours to do so.
Win or lose, we celebrate them. We celebrate their abilities. To bee.