The other day, I phoned my attourney to see if she could get me out of a traffic ticket. If the misspelled “attorney” jumped off the page in that untrue sentence, you too might have been a spelling bee contestant.
“Attorney.” The stinking word I botched in the fifth-grade spelling bee. Three of us went round after round, trying to be the master of our dictionary, but after what felt like eternity, I was out. I’m quite certain mild PTSD stemming from the experience ruined any chance of my becoming a lawyer — that and my aversion to arguing.
What people don’t know is I studied diligently. D-I-L-I-G… In fact, my fifth-grade teacher had a warped need for a student national winner. My brilliant best friend was a shoo-in, and her lifelong gray matter competitor finished our trio; hence, the three Musketeers advanced to parry in the hallway.
I remember endless hours seated on the hard linoleum. We weren’t prepping for a tornado drill, but memorizing the dictionary. Every day we’d quiz each other, then return to the classroom, to join friends in constructing dollhouses crafted out of cardboard and wallpaper samples. This teacher also wanted some architects.
(Other than growing moldy lima beans in the windowsill, art terminology and spelling, that was fifth grade. A tenured public school teacher can be terminated, and she was.)
So when my eldest daughter came home beaming that she’d made the school’s final level of the National Scripps Spelling Bee, I was proud as Punch. I’ve always felt people are born good spellers or not, and this daughter hadn’t missed any spelling words in second grade. Genes can be a blessing, but for some — unfavorable.
My youngest and extremely bright child, who lacks that spelling gene, announced she was also chosen to represent her grade in the same bee. I almost passed out. If she weren’t 9, I might have suggested buying a lottery ticket because the girl got real lucky with the words she was given.
Over winter break, both girls had much opportunity to memorize the provided word list. But since history guided my hand, my girls were to be self-motivated or roll the dice praying for three-lettered words.
Their collective studying motivation was absent. I suppose if your teacher said you’re the best speller in your class, you could interpret that you know all the words in the English language. Some kids are naturally competitive for top academic honors; mine enthusiastically competed in Wii Mario Brothers on their vacation.
The Spelling Bee was nerve-wracking, no petrifying, for some parents. P-E-T-R…I’m sure the kids were nervous too, but I was too busy praying my girls wouldn’t miss their first word. Other than tripping on the way up to the microphone, being the first person out is the worst. Of course, I didn’t tell them that.
My oldest daughter was up first. She didn’t trip — and she got it right! A loud exhalation from me penetrated the crowd. Oops!
Now it was time for my baby.
Oh, Lordy! Let her get “cat.”
She got it right! And it was a four-letter word! (The good kind, mind you.) Even better.
Now I was in it for the win. Luckily my daughters weren’t as excited as I was. After the fourth round, my third-grader joined her classmates in the audience, followed by her big sister in the fifth round.
However, after my oldest daughter missed her word, she made a choice that warmed my heart. She saddled up next to her little sister who appeared deflated, put her arms around her and gave her a long hug.
As a parent, it was better than winning any national title.
My kids were the winners that day, and I couldn’t be prouder of who they are becoming.
(Previously published in The Kansas City Star on January 22, 2016)