“I won the spelling bee, Daddy!”
Naturally, I was thrilled, but as I was in the tax office, I refrained from doing a victory dance. Of course, this did not keep me from sharing the news with my colleagues.
Anyway, by the time I got home, the kids were out and it fell to Alissa to give me the play by play. Oddly enough, she couldn’t remember any of the words involved. Apparently, there had been five competitors. One went out in the first round. The other three hung around for a bit, dropping out one by one. There was one round in which they all misspelled the word. In the end, it was Harry and one of his table-mates. Eventually, she too faltered. Harry had to spell a “proving word”, which he did successfully, and he was the champion. Naturally, everyone celebrated with ice cream.
Here’s what I found somewhat surprising. Harry was going to compete in the district spelling bee in less than two weeks. I had no idea that such a competition would exist for kindergartners, but I was clearly incorrect.
I happened to be at the school the next day for “Doo Dad Day” and I was surprised at how many people knew Harry and were passing along congratulations. While in the classroom, I was able to observe the girl that Harry beat out in that final round. She sat across from him at his table, so I got to see her work through a couple of worksheets. I have to say, she seemed pretty sharp. She stayed focused, working quickly and confidently with clean, precise writing. It made her look all the more formidable when contrasted with Harry’s more “relaxed” work habits. Harry’s very smart and does quite well in school, but words like “focused” and “precise” are not ones that I’d use to characterize him or his work habits. It’s just how he’s wired, which is not surprising considering that his father has many similar qualities.
I’ve never been to a spelling bee and certainly never competed in one. That’s not to say that I’m a stranger to academic completion. I entered books in the Young Author’s Conference from third through ninth grade. I was on my school’s academic pentathlon team in seventh and eighth grade, earning medals in science and social studies, and I got an honorable mention for my essay in the Academic Decathlon during my senior year in high school.
I also have vague recollections of going to the library for some kind of “math team” in third or fourth grade and playing games called “Dara” and “Hex”. Hex involved hexagons, but beyond that, I don’t remember anything else, and I don’t remember any actual completion.
All that is to say that I had no idea what to expect from the spelling bee. Alissa had related to me that the school event was a serious affair. Spectators were expected to shut down and store all devices. Applause was to be held until the end of the round. Rather than saying “correct” or “incorrect”, a judge would hold up a green or red card.
Well, twelve days passed. Tax season ended. We started preparing for Harry’s birthday and spent a lot of money on shoes. (Don’t ask.) Finally, the day of the event approached and team Viertel swung into action. Alissa got off work early. I picked up pizza and we had an early dinner at my mom’s.
I think Harry was nervous as evidenced by a rough day at school. This, of course, put us in the position of having to balance encouragement for the event to come and consequences for poor behavioral choices. Ultimately, I think we managed to do okay.
We were actually early to the event and had to wander around the middle school for a while. I like taking the kids to schools ahead of where they are. It gives them a glimpse into the future. For Harry, this was the gym I walked him through to the bathroom. He was fascinated by the large basketball court and the collapsible bleachers.
Then it was into the library for the bee. Harry was the first one there and he found his place seat and donned his number nine placard. The the word reader was Harry’s principal, so there was some familiarity.
Time passed. Competitors and spectators filtered in. More bathroom visits ensued. Finally it was time to start.
The contestants were a cross section of the district, the top three Kindergarten spellers from each school. I didn’t see any particular feature stand out. They were just a bunch of kindergartners: rainbow of boys and girls. Some were shy. Some were intense. Some covered their nerves with bravado. Some were all smiles. And they all had supporters in the audience who may have been as nervous as the kids.
The competition started, and the first misspelled word came before Harry’s first turn. It was particularly hard to swallow. The word was “lap” and the girl just started spelling it wrong. “Lap. A-L.” She paused, and corrected herself even though she knew it was too late.” L-A-P.”
The red card went up and she returned to her seat. She sat there quietly as the round progressed, valiantly (and successfully) fighting back tears. Truth be told, it looked like she was mad at herself for the mistake on a word that she really did know.
That’s a tough lesson for a kindergartner, but this one held it together and kept her dignity intact.
Then Harry was up.
“Your word is “mug.” Daddy drinks his coffee from a mug.”
He stepped up to the microphone. “Mug. M-U-G.”
The green card went up and he returned to his seat.
There were around 25 kids, and the first round played out with no further eliminations.
There were a few more eliminations in the second round, but Harry got his word right.
In the third round, Harry walked to microphone more tentatively. He was uncertain this time. There was no game face. I don’t know what happened, but when he came up for the third round, he didn’t have “it”, whatever “it” is. And that was before he got an O-W word, one of his weaknesses.
The word was “now.”
He knew he didn’t know, and as a result, there was minimal hesitation. “Now. N-A-W.”
The red card went up and he returned to his seat. At the end of the round, he picked up his participation ribbon and came to sit with us.
As the next round got started, Annie got antsy, so I took her out of the room. It wasn’t long before the rest of our party arrived. One of Harry’s classmates was still competing, and they waited until she was eliminated.
Naturally, we celebrated with ice cream.
As we were eating our ice cream, another of the kids from the spelling bee came in with his family. He’ d gone a few more rounds, but he’d left before a champion was crowned. Later, as we were leaving another contestant pulled up. We were already pulling out, but from her demeanor, she could very well have been the winner. Then again, if she had not won, se certainly was not the first to partake of ice cream despite not having won it all.
It occurs to me that we’ll be seeing these kids again. These kids, having had the experience of competition are going to do it again. Harry will be competing with these same kids academically, athletically, socially and. ultimately for college admissions. Some may even end up as friends or teammates. Sometimes, he’ll win. Sometimes he’ll lose, but it’s my hope that learns to do both with character, dignity, perspective and joy in the experiential journey.
So our odyssey into the world of the spelling bee came to an end for this, but not without the realization that this end is but one beginning among many beginnings this year.