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I picked my outfit with extra care that night. I knew I would be on national television and needed to make myself presentable and well-groomed. Actually, the event was going to be aired only on public programming, but it was television either way, and I felt the need to dress accordingly. When I finished dressing, I looked over the packet of words, trying to memorize all 1500 words if possible. It wasn’t possible.
Analytical. A-N-A-L-Y-T-I-C-A-L. Prosaic. Grr…these words were beyond the vocabulary of a 12-year old. It was only by luck that I had made it this far. It all began when I had gone to the spelling bee practice in an effort to improve my grade in my English class. Surprisingly, I won among my fellow seventh grade classmates. The next round, I was against the two other winners in my school. Surprisingly, I won that round as well. Next was the district round. That is, me against the fifth graders of each of the four elementary schools in my town. I was astounded when I saw my principal enter the small room and sit with the parents at the district round. He had never taken notice of me before and I was amazed that he even knew how to pronounce my name. I flew through the round and I couldn’t help but sigh in relief whenever an opponent misspelled a word and was out. I felt like this contest was suddenly important, seeing the excitement on my principal’s wrinkly face. I was beginning to like all this attention. My winning word was “opossum”: one p, two s’s. In a daze, I let my principal hug me and I happily accepted my prize, a brand new…dictionary. Lovely. Still, I looked around triumphantly at my opponents—who were, I knew, younger than me but in no way did that fact diminish my pride—and was disappointed to see that they each had received a dictionary as well. But the competition wasn’t over yet.
That night was the regional contest for Scripps National Spelling Bee, me against 19 other kids from 19 other towns. During the drive to Southern Connecticut State University, where the regional competition was taking place, I was inexcusably cranky to my mom and my sister. I had somewhat of a diva’s attitude, “needing the quiet for my concentration.” Lovingly, my family understood the stress my young self was enduring and left me to my peace during the car ride.
At Southern State, my nervousness increased tenfold as the competitors were to take their seats on the stage in the auditorium. Nineteen others and I handed our coats to our parents and after high-fives and whispers of good luck, we hesitantly ascended the steps to the stage. I sat in the chair that had the sign “North Haven” on it and was secretly proud to see that I was sitting in the middle of the stage, right in the direction of the camera. I politely smiled to a boy with red hair sitting next to me and I could tell he was nervous as well by the way his left leg did not cease to shake. Suddenly, the blinding spotlight turned on and I adjusted my hair. The judges’ voices were heard, the contest was to begin, and most importantly, the cameras started rolling.
The judges explained the rules in monotone voices and although I tried to make eye contact with them, they refused to smile or do anything that made me less nervous. All too soon, the contest began, starting with a girl from Ansonia. Then Bethany. Then Bristol. I sighed in aggravation whenever a word I knew was given to another person while I fidgeted in my uncomfortably firm chair, waiting for my turn. The agonizing thrill I felt when the red-haired boy turned from the microphone and sat down in his chair, a signal for me to get up to the microphone myself, was enough to make me perspire in an instant. I walked with fake confidence to the spotlight and did not bother to adjust the microphone even though it was awkwardly too high, in fear that I would drop it. I looked in the direction of the judges, waiting for my word.
The dull voice gave the definition as well, but I wasn’t listening. I knew that word. I turned toward the camera and with a little more confidence now, clearly spelled the word out.
“Ramen. R-A-M-E-N. Ramen.”
“That is correct.”
With a thundering sigh, I smiled slightly at the audience and turned and took my seat. Everyone made it through the first round. Second round, the words were a bit tougher and Shelton was out. Third round: Trumbull and Hamden were out. Each time I spelled a word correctly and each time I heard the ding of the bell after someone else spelled a word incorrectly, I turned to look at the trophy table to the left of the stage. I focused only on the larger trophies for first, second, and third place winners. I imagined myself holding a huge trophy as reporters took pictures for the newspaper. I reassured myself that third place was fine with me. I preferred first place, but third place was all right, too. As if my preference would determine the results.
The red-haired boy correctly spelled the word he was given and turned away from the audience. He took short breaths as he staggered toward his seat. Taking the cue, I slowly stood up and walked to the microphone, staring into the blinding spotlight that was less intimidating now. I saw the outline of my mom and smiled as she waved and made a heart with her hands over her head.
Then I heard the word.
“Erudite,” the judge said. My mind went blank. Never having heard this word before, I fidgeted and pulled at the loose string in my new sweater, not caring anymore about my appearance. I wiped my hands on my dress pants and looked at the orator judge, asking him to repeat the word. He did, and this time he also told me the definition.
“Showing great knowledge gained from study and reading; scholarly.”
I felt all the redness inside of my body flow up to my face. I said,
“What’s the origin?” forgetting to say “please” or “may I have the origin,” which was the proper way to ask on national…er, local television. I was just stalling for time and did not hear what the judge said.
I knew I didn’t know how to spell the word. My body sunk two inches in defeat and with a quivering voice, I said,
“A-E-R-Y-U-A-D-I-T-E. Er..yadite?” My intonation revealed the glimmer of hope I still had; perhaps I was correct and made it through this round.
Ding. “That is incorrect.”
My eyesight blurred. I tried to blink the wetness away.
“The correct spelling is E-R…”
I bit my lip. I was not going to cry in front of an audience.
I nodded quickly.
With my head down, I descended the steps from the stage to where my mom and sister were sitting. Refusing to make eye contact with anyone, I sat down in the cushioned seat and laid my head in my mom’s lap and cried. My sister, being antagonistic as siblings often were, asked why I was crying. I lifted my head just to glare at her for that insensitive comment and laid it back down on my mom’s lap. But I didn’t know why I was crying. I wasn’t crying because I was embarrassed or because I had worked so hard preparing for this spelling bee. I hadn’t prepared at all, except on my attire. I cried because I was just overcome with emotions pressured by the seriousness of the judges and the tense atmosphere of the competition.
To this day, I still have the small trophy that I hadn’t even noticed on the trophy table next to the stage. It would’ve been nice to win, and I remember envying the girl who won as I clapped for her. But I proudly accepted the trophy of a miniature bumblebee wearing glasses and holding a dictionary. I don’t have to remind myself that the people who came in 4th place and 20th place both received the same trophy. My trophy reminds me to stay humble and that maybe if I’d focused more on the words in my packet than my appearance, I could have been the one holding the big trophy getting my picture taken. But then again, I wouldn’t have been dressed for the camera, and that was unacceptable.