After Spring Break and Easter, the Viertel family settled in for the last week of tax season. My office doesn’t see a huge rush in the run up to Tax Day, but it does get busier after the quiet of March. The clients are more likely to leave with a payment voucher than plans for spending their return, but they tend to be aware of that fact. Some are surprised, but the tendency to file in April is usually accompanied by a sense, if not a certainty, that there is not a big refund check at the end of the tax interview.
And so it was that I found myself between clients one Thursday evening when my phone rang. Normally, I wouldn’t answer, but I was anxious to hear the news that this call would bring me. You see, Harry was competing in his school’s spelling bee.
By the time this was decided, I was already on the schedule and could not change it. I wasn’t sure what to expect. He hadn’t done a huge amount of preparation, and he alternated between wanting to compete and not being interested at all. Then there was the question of which Harry would make an appearance. Would it be shy Harry or outgoing, confident Harry?
The day before, as we drove to pick up Annie, Harry finally made the commitment in his mind to compete. “Okay, I guess I’ll do it, just this once.”
The evening of the Bee, I picked up both kids and we went to meet Alissa. She would take them to the school and I’d go to work. As I made my exit, I gave Harry one last bit of advice.
“We love you no matter what. Just relax, have fun, take a breath and think before you speak.”
And then we went our separate ways.
We really didn’t know what to expect. I have no doubt that Harry is as capable as any of his peers of spelling words on demand. It’s a raw skill, a building block for reading and writing. If he has the knowledge, if he knows the word, it’s just a matter of saying the letters, a one step process to move the knowledge from his head to his mouth. There’s no intermediate step like writing or typing to complicate matters.
So in one sense, spelling, especially for a Kindergartner, is that simple, but, it’s a competition, a completely different animal. He has to stand in front of people and recite the letters. Once he starts spelling, he’s committed. There’s one chance, no going back, no self-correction. Once the first letter is uttered, there is nothing to do but move forward. Beyond that, there’s the question of shear randomness. Is he going to get a word that he knows, or one with which he struggles? It’s impossible to know such things.
So I set my expectations low, thrilled that he was even putting himself out there for the competition. In my mind, the act of trying, the taking of the risk, was the real test. In that first walk to the microphone lay victory. He didn’t need to win. He didn’t even need to spell anything right. He needed to try, to give himself the chance to, as Kipling put it, “meet with Triumph [or] Disaster and treat those two imposters just the same.”
That’s what you tell yourself when you’re a parent, when your child is facing one of those moments, taking one of those walks that he can only take by himself. It’s part of growing up. It’s part of him facing the world and taking his place in it, no matter how small that place is. And it’s true. It remains true in the face of victory or in the face of defeat. It’s not about a competition or a ribbon or a certificate. It’s not the result that matters. It’s the journey.
I sat at my desk between clients, and my phone rang. I was actually expecting a text, so it was with some confusion that I answered.
It was Alissa. “ Harry has something he wants to tell you.”
Her voice was replaced by Harry’s. “I won the Spelling Bee, Daddy!”