The spelling bee brought together all the private schools in the area. Grade by grade, the spellers stepped forward to sit in a row of cold metal chairs beneath the glaring gymnasium lights. Fourth grade started things off, drawing numbers and sitting in order, nervously fidgeting and kicking their feet while each awaited his moment to stand up and twist the letters of the alphabet into one of their numberless permutations.
In the stands, I was tense. Not for the outcome, which didn’t concern me so much, but for Katie’s feelings. Part of her struggle with Asperger’s is an occasional inability to cope with strong emotions, and I was afraid of how she would handle the losing part of competition. Would she be overwhelmed and burst into tears of disappointment? Or would she bear up with stoic seriousness until the round was over? Although I had tried my best beforehand to prepare her for the possibility, I held my breath every time she stood to spell.
Round after round, she spelled each word correctly. On a couple of them, she asked for a sentence or a definition. The pronouncer told me later that as he watched her mull over each word, he could see the exact moment when the light bulb went on in her head. She spoke the letters clearly and confidently, emphasizing each one with a jab of her finger, as if she could see the word hovering in the air in front of her.
Finally, it was down to two. Both girls did a wonderful job, but in the end, Katie was declared the winner. A big grin lit her face and she did a silent herky of joy as the announcer congratulated her, then turned to me with an expression of amazed happiness that clearly said, “Can you believe it, Mom?” The second place winner, who will be the alternate in the next stage of the competition, tapped Katie on the shoulder and, with the beginning of tears welling up in her eyes, graciously said, “You did a good job!” “So did you!” Katie returned, and a cacophony of congratulations swelled around us. For the rest of the day, Katie was a mini celebrity at school, delighted recipient of hugs and compliments everywhere she went.
I thought I couldn’t possibly be any prouder of her.
This morning she proved me wrong.
On the day of the spelling bee, the judges had explained the rules of elimination, including the procedure for having two spellers left in the competition. At the moment Katie won, I had been expecting her to have to spell another word to claim victory. When they suddenly declared her the winner, the attendant hubbub as I filled out papers and made proud phone calls to friends and family swept that detail to the back of my mind and I didn’t think of it again all day. This morning, however, I woke up with it nagging at me, and wondered if a mistake had been made.
I dug the rule paper out of Katie’s desk and looked over it again, but it didn’t shed much light. I paced and fretted, fretted and paced, until Paul urged me to do whatever it took to set my heart at rest. I couldn’t stand the thought of disappointing Katie and somehow taking this victory away from her, but I knew that it was important to make sure everything had been done fairly, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that it wouldn’t be right to let it go without checking. So I took the matter to Katie.
I explained to her that I was wondering about whether the administrator had made a mistake on the rules. I pointed out the rule to her and told her what it would mean if we called the spelling bee officials to investigate. “They may consider the results of the spelling bee fair and binding, or they may ask us to come back in so that you can replay the last round of the competition again. If that happens, there is a chance you could lose, sweetie. What do you think we should do?”
She only paused for a second. Then she sighed a little and said, “Let’s call them, Mom.”
I thought my heart would burst.
As a parent, you always wonder if the lessons you are trying so hard to impart to your children are sinking in. Treating others fairly, being honest in small things and large, doing what is right even when it is most difficult or costly–these are the hallmarks of integrity, and to see it blossoming in my child made the joyful celebration of yesterday pale into insignificance.
I pulled her up into my lap and told her that. Later, we called the spelling bee arbiter and explained our concern. He cleared up my misunderstanding of the rule and reassured us that Katie’s victory was well-earned and would stand. He wished her good luck and reminded her to study. He remembered her, he told me, for the smile that lit up her whole face when she got a word correct. “Like she has a glow inside,” he said.
Yes, I thought. Yes, she does.
May it shine on.