In case you haven’t picked up on it yet, Dear Readers, I am a geek. So, when my mom called me on Wednesday and said “Guess what this week is!” I knew what she was getting at right away: the last week in May is the Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee. I’ve been watching the round results for the last two days.
(Fun words that have come up: shenanigans, skedaddle, onomasticon, sidereal (yes, because of Exalted. Your hostess is a geek, remember), frabjous, hippotigrine)
Back when I was a wee lass, in the halcyon days of 1992, I managed to work my way up through the school bee (winning word: commencement), the regional bee (winning words: logarithmic and hermetically), and went on to the nationals.
…where I got out in the third round on “misanthropic.”
There are several of you snickering at the irony, I know.
The sad thing is, the way the pronouncer said it, I really thought he said “misenthropic.” The way the spelling bee rules work, once you’ve said a letter, you can’t go back and correct yourself.
So, there I was, all “I’ve got this,” and I start spelling. M-I-S-E-N… When my brain started screaming “THAT’S NOT A WORD, DUMBASS.” and I realized he meant “misanthropic.” I finished spelling (a very dejected “I’m-an-idiot” sounding T-H-R-O-P-I-C.) One of the judges shook her head at me with this look saying she’d seen me catch myself just a second too late, and offstage I went.
They have this thing, for the kids who get out. They call it the Comfort Room. It’s filled with snacks and soda and tissues and college-age volunteers who are there to give you a hug and say “good job” while you sob until your parents come in and take over.
I wasn’t sobbing.
The girl who was in the room couldn’t figure it out. She seemed to think I should be having a meltdown, and there I was, calm as anything. Maybe a little disappointed with myself, but certainly not falling apart. My dad came in, and she did this sympathetic scrunched-up face at him, like she was saying, “It’ll hit her now.”
I looked at my dad and said, “I messed up.”
He said, “I know, I saw you catch it. You okay?”
I said, “Yup.”
The girl boggled.
I said, “Can we go to the Smithsonian tomorrow?”
He said, “Yup.”
The girl boggled some more. “Um, do you want to take some tissues in case…?”
My dad looked at her and said, “She’s fine. She did her best. It’s all we asked.”
…and that was it. We left the room, rejoined my mom and my grandparents. We stayed until the end of that round, went out to dinner. The next day, while the finalists were up on stage stressing out about their words, we went to the Air and Space Museum and wandered around Washington, D.C.
I think the college girl felt kind of cheated at my lack of hysterics. Though honestly, I was a bit of an anomaly. There are some kids that study so hard for this thing, that when they get out, they’re inconsolable. Their parents put tremendous pressure on them, to the point where they eat, sleep and breathe words for the month or two leading up to the bee.
You’re in D.C. for a week. Monday-Wednesday, you go on tours, you go to a cookout for the spellers and their families, you attend all kinds of activities. Yet, there are some kids who, while everyone else is running around eating hot dogs and playing frisbee, stay away from the crowd and study. Endlessly reciting words, missing out on all the fun.
I’m lucky. In the time leading up to the bee, my mother and I would sit in our backyard and she’d quiz me from the word lists. We borrowed this huge dictionary from The Patriot Ledger (my sponsoring paper), and she’d find tricky words in there for me. But it was no more than an hour at a time, and it wasn’t like a test. If I got a word wrong, she’d show me, and we’d come back to it another night. She made up little mnemonic devices for the ones that threw me repeatedly. I suppose we should have been looking at root words and languages of origin, but it was more fun making up silly phrases to jog my memory.
There was, literally, no pressure on me other than, “Do your best.”
So, no, I didn’t win the National Spelling Bee. I didn’t get a set of encyclopedias or a college scholarship. But I saw a whole lot of Washington, D.C., and I spent time with my parents and grandparents, and I got to go to the Air and Space Museum, which was the one thing I really wanted to do down there, and wouldn’t have been able to if I’d made it into the finals.
I think I won out, in the end.