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.