Wednesday, October 1, 2014

a spelling bee story.

When I was in first grade, I was chosen for a regional spelling bee.

I know. You’re impressed.

The spelling bee was to involve a handful of area schools, and it would be held in our school gym. First through sixth graders were to compete with each other, and each grade level would be awarded first through fifth place. It was a big deal.

So how did I make it into such elite company? Honestly, I don’t really remember. There were three of us from the Arlington first grade class who made it in: my friend Allison, a girl named Jill, and me. I have a hazy memory of us being selected by a to-the-death spelling bee in which all of the thirty-some first graders were pitted against each other. The three of us happened to be the last three standing, and that’s how we earned our places. Or so I think.

We each received a little blue spelling book and were instructed by the principal to get practicing. 
Spelling bees were a big deal to him, and he wanted a good showing from his school. The three of us got out of class to practice in the elementary library, and I remember feeling a great sense of accomplishment when I spelled the word “beautiful” correctly on my first try.

I took my blue spelling book home and practiced with my dad. I’ve never been much for practicing, so I didn’t put as much time into it as I should have – something that Dad would remind me of later.

The day of the spelling bee came, and Allison and I were dressed to impress. We hovered around the trophy table, eyeing the gigantic first prize trophy, each hoping that we’d be able to triumphantly take it home.

Allison and I spelled like champs. We spelled in the tried-and-true spelling bee form: say the word, spell it, repeat the word. We were unstoppable. When the spelling bee was over and done, Allison and I did indeed come out on top. Allison won first place, and I went home with second.

My parents were thrilled for me. “Second place!” they said. “That’s great!” I, however, was devastated. I hated losing, and I viewed second place as a losing place. Mom and Dad assured me that second place did not make me a loser – think of how many people I beat to get that trophy! But I would have none of it.
Check out that fake smile.
When we got home, in classic drama queen fashion, I promptly threw my trophy in the garbage. My dad fished it out and sat me down for a talk that would go down in Bjorklund parenting history. He gathered up a handful of pennies – one penny for each spelling bee competitor. Dad then separated two pennies from the pack. “Do you see these two pennies?” he said. “These pennies are you and Allison.” He pointed at the pile of pennies left behind. “These pennies are everyone you beat in the spelling bee today. You spelled better than all of these other pennies.” A great point and a great visual, yes. But I was stubborn, and Dad’s pep talk did nothing to change my disappointment in my perceived poor performance that day.

Despite my sore loser-dom, I wound up in the regional spelling bee again in second grade. This time, it was held in a neighboring school. So much for home field advantage. It had been a year since my first grade defeat, but my heart wasn’t in this spelling bee. I ended up in fifth place thanks to my ability to spell the word “business.”

That year, our principal retired. With him went the regional spelling bee. However, Arlington could still send students to spelling bees in larger towns, so that’s what they did. Allison and I were still the two best spellers in the glass, so in third grade, we were sent off to larger spelling bees: Allison went to Watertown, and I was sent to Brookings.

This particular Brookings spelling bee was just for third graders, and it was held in the library of the newly-built middle school. It was an evening bee, and we circled our chairs near the large windows – I remember the backdrop of the night sky being so different than the gymnasium walls of spelling bees past.

My parents and uncle (who happened to be visiting from Colorado – and who wouldn’t want to spend part of their vacation at a spelling bee?) sat and watched the spelling be. It’s not much of a spectator sport, but when you’ve got an athletically challenged child like yours truly, I suppose you take what you can get.

I did fairly well in this spelling bee – I was trucking along and breezing past my rivals… until I was given the word “hew.” Yes, a very simple word. I knew how to spell “hue,” of course, but I wondered if that was just too easy. I asked for a definition and was told that “hew” meant to strike with force, usually in reference to cutting down trees. In my nine years, I had never heard “hew” used in that way. (It’s now eighteen years later, and I still never hear the word “hew” – except when I tell this story.) I took a chance, spelled the word “h-u-e,” and was eliminated.

Despite my hew/hue issues, I was awarded third place. For my efforts, I was given a blue travel mug that I still use to this day.
It's a little faded, but you can sort of see where
it used to say "Brookings Register."
That Brookings spelling bee marked the end of my spelling bee era. Despite my nearly two decade long absence from competitive spelling, I am still a pretty darn good speller. Just don’t ask me to spell hew.

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