Spelling Queen


I was the 7th Grade Spelling Bee Champion of Gwinnett County.

Naturally, I don’t talk about it much. The last thing I need is a cadre of adoring fans following me around and the paparazzi using telephoto lenses to take pictures of me on my exotic vacations to Multnomah Falls and Farragut State Park.

Of course, I’ve told my closest friends, and, being the down-to-earth people that they are, they don’t treat me like I’m different just because I happen to have superhuman spelling abilities. Which is good—except when I’m trying to get one of them to babysit my kids or take over my Sunday school class for me. A little star power might come in handy once in a while.

Anyway, it’s been a while since I wore my title openly, but apparently people still remember, because a couple of weeks ago, my friend Marci approached me with a spelling-bee-related request. And you know me; I hate to disappoint a fan.

It turns out that the private school where Marci and several of my other friends teach is hosting this year’s area-wide spelling bee. Marci, who is in charge of the whole affair, was in need of judges, pronouncers, and, most pressing of all, words for the four practice rounds. The mention of a spelling bee must have stirred my warrior blood and reminded me of my own glory days, because before I knew it, I was agreeing to help. (And, oh yeah, I’m sure my friendship with Marci had a little to do with it.)

Four practice rounds, five grades, and twelve contestants in each grade—that’s 240 words. I’m choosing them from the study lists Marci gave me, looking up the definitions and pronunciations, and using each one in a sentence, then copying all the information into a Microsoft Word document to be used on the day of the spelling bee.

It may sound tedious, but it’s actually kind of fun. Especially making up the sentences. For those of you unfamiliar with spelling bees, what happens is this: The speller is given a word to spell. He may spell it right away, or he may request the definition of the word or ask to hear it used in a sentence. Sometimes, as in the case of homophones (which sound the same, but are spelled differently), hearing the word in context can help the speller determine how it’s spelled. And from experience, I can tell you that the pressure of standing in front of the lights with all those eyes on you can make a usually familiar word sound like something from an exotic foreign language. Calling for a definition or a sentence is a good stalling tactic while you try to master your nerves.

I may be teasing about my celebrity status, but winning the Gwinnett County Spelling Bee as a mere seventh grader did temporarily catapult me into the spotlight at Shiloh Middle School, a place where the only talent I had previously displayed was the ability to fly under the radar socially—a small, invisible butterfly that escaped both notice and persecution. The spelling bee changed all that, at least temporarily. The highlight of my entire time in grades six through eight was the day that Troy Weber, the Cutest Boy in School, walked past me in the hallway and called out, “Hey! Way to go, Spelling Queen!”

I floated on that for weeks.

The day of the regional spelling bee (where all the champions from the various counties in our region of Georgia came to compete for a chance to go to the state bee), I was a bundle of nerves. The lights seemed brighter, the crowd seemed bigger, and the news cameras in the back of the auditorium made it clear that there was a little more at stake this time.

Though I was shaky, I made it through several rounds of the competition. Each time I stood up from my cold, metal folding chair on the stage and made my way to the spot lit podium in front of the judges, the walk seemed a little longer. As contestants dropped out on every side of me, I grew more anxious. Finally, standing there alone at the microphone, with my knees knocking together under my best dress and my feet rooted in place inside my church shoes, I met my demise.

It was the simplest word. “Wharf.”

wharf / [hwawrf, wawrf] –noun
a structure built on the shore of or projecting into a harbor, stream, etc., so that vessels may be moored alongside to load or unload or to lie at rest; quay; pier.

Somehow, in that moment, it seemed that I had never heard it before. I asked to hear it used in a sentence. I requested the definition. Nothing helped. In the end, I slowly and helplessly squeaked out, “w…..a…r….f.” The judge, not unkindly, shook his head and said the terrible words.

“I’m sorry, that is incorrect.”

Just like that, I was done. I walked numbly back to the row of seats where my mom was sitting. The tears came then, rushing forth to release all the pent up nervousness and dashed hopes inside of me. I knelt on the floor and cried with my head in my mother’s lap. I later found out that a newspaper reporter had taken a picture of me, my face buried in my arms while my mom stroked my hair and let me weep. It ran the next day at the top of an article about the spelling bee, with a caption reading: “The agony of defeat.” My mom wasn’t too happy about it, but that was the story, after all.

It didn’t take long for my life to return, more or less, to normal, and I must confess to feeling slightly relieved. No more studying, no more nervous butterflies in my stomach, no more pressure. And my slight brush with fame left me a little different than I had been before. A little more confident. A little less invisible. 100% more likely to spell wharf correctly every day for the rest of my life.

Now, back to reading the dictionary.

13 responses »

  1. Yet again…something I never knew about you! Did you know I was the Benton County Spelling Queen in the 4th grade? I made it onto the State competition after regionals and met my own demise with the word “entirely”. 🙂 I still have all of my trophies. Heh. Have fun with the bee!

  2. One of the stories that made me know that my best guy friend and I are definitely meant to be besties is when he talked about being a judge for a little kid spelling bee and it crushing his heart when he saw the disappointment on the kids faces who lost. Too cute. This is also the guy who was one of the smartest kids at his highschool and had a summer job scooping ice cream– because it brings joy to everyone. Yep– this is why we are friends.

  3. So have you watched that spelling bee movie? LM is a horrible speller, for all his vocabulary, he can’t spell at all. And me? Well, I love a great vocab, but I can’t pronounce the words right, so if you talk to me, I sound like a third grader, trying to avoid saying the words that I KNOW but I can’t SAY.

  4. fifth grade. miami. must have been the area-wide christian school bee. the word was “garbage”. i was never so glad to lose a game in my life. and for me, you know that’s saying something.

  5. Dude, is there anything you DON’T do well? Wow.

    I won a 7th grade spelling bee on the word “sheer”. Who the hell can misspell that? Even in 7th grade? It kind of took away from the win a little bit, but oh well.

    Hats off to you and have fun with your new career as spelling bee judge!

  6. As one of the pronouncers at said spelling bee, I thank you for making up the sentences. I am not good at that. My sentence for wharf would be, “One of the characters in Lord of the Rings was a wharf.” Wait. Maybe he was a dwarf.

  7. What a great post! Thanks for sharing your flair for spelling. Reading everyone’s comments makes me wonder what word I missed in the classroom spelling bee. I know I remember it, but it’s not coming to me now. I think that was the only time we had a spell off. Oh well, this is coming from someone who mispelled February until high school.

  8. Hah, I just stumbled here somehow. But this post took me right back to 4th grade. I lost out in the state spelling bee with “aloof”. hehe. I’d never heard the word before and tried to put a “gh” at the end. 😉

  9. It was the Lakeview Junior High School Spelling Bee, and there were only two of us left to determine who would go on to regionals in Klamath Falls. The word was “sophomore”…Who knew about that “o”? “O”, well, I will never forget it. I would like to start your “cadre of adoring fans” just because you are the ideal person to help a friend with what some may consider mundane, but the spelling bee queen would consider fun! Thank you for saying so, anyway. With adoration and appreciation. Marci

  10. I was in the final four in our 4th grade spelling bee when I misspelled the word “havoc.” I added a K at the end.

    I hate when the media posts pictures or video of kids crying like that. It’s traumatizing to be a kid!

  11. What a great post, Katrina! I’m so sorry about the photo in the paper! What drama! I never made it past our city spelling bee although I got that far in both fifth and sixth grade. I don’t remember which year it was but the word I was disqualified under was one I was destined to use and talk about and deal with for much of my adult life…”malaria”! P.S. I remember being so proud of Sarah when she made it to state. They even paid for our whole family to stay in a hotel in Spokane! I have a special place in my heart for Spelling Bees. I would love to be at the one you’ve made up the sentences for! Have fun!

  12. Sounds like you come from a fine spelling family, Becky. Going to state is a big deal–that is so cool that Sarah made it so far! (So funny about misspelling ‘malaria’–no danger of that ever happening again, is there?)

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