“Ladies and gentlemen,” the soft-spoken principal announced, “that ends another round.” It happened to be the tenth round of the annual Spelling Bee at my daughter’s elementary school, and the audience filled the gym with applause.
Ten rounds. By this point in the competition among third, fourth, and fifth graders, anxiety levels were through the roof, obviously more so for the parents than the students. The minute hand on the clock had rotated over one hundred times since the original 79 children took their places on the stage, and I felt exactly 100 times more nervous than when it all began particularly for one fourth grade girl – my daughter.
The sighs and moans, the “oohs” and “aahs,” were growing louder with each passing round as the disappointment became palpable for many of the kids, and their families, as they met untimely disqualifications. A queasy feeling was slowly growing in the pit of my stomach, while drops of perspiration multiplied exponentially and my own nervous movements became more noticeable. And to think, I was going to be the reassuring, soothing influence for my wife throughout this experience.
The first moments of the contest made it clear that I would have to be the calm in the storm as my wife gripped my arm with the intensity of an Olympic weightlifter when each young person approached the microphone to face the #1 fear of virtually every adult in the room – public speaking! It turned out that those first moments deceived me. Being calm was a distant fantasy; the storm had engulfed me. Still trying to present an outer shell of poise and serenity, inside I was being blown by every wind of emotion.
Next, round 11, with fifty fewer competitors. Anyone around me could have immediately diagnosed me with restless leg syndrome. My daughter stepped to the microphone and heard the lady’s voice declare, “The word is temperature.” In nano-seconds, my mind instantly figured out the conspiracy to take my child out of this competition with a word that has an unfairly placed ‘a’ in the middle of it for no good reason. I was convinced that justice would demand that she be offered up words like dad or big or top. I mean, come on, who do these people think they are, setting out to shatter the dreams of a nine-year-old?!?
Common sense returned quickly enough for me to hear her quietly pronounce each letter correctly. She returned to her seat and advanced to the next round. Oh good!
Round 12, as the only remaining representative of the fourth grade, I observed my child survive yet another overt attempt to eliminate her – paprika! Success. Oh no! That means another round.
Thirteen. Everyone knows 13 is an unlucky number. For the same reason that buildings don’t have thirteenth floors, should spelling bees not have thirteenth rounds? I made a mental note to contact the coordinators of such a poorly designed contest when this is over if my daughter were to meet her demise in a round that shouldn’t even exist!
Back to reality, the stage was filled with empty chairs, symbolic of all the fallen victims of the two-hour event. Only four students remained. No time for a deep breath. Suddenly, my little girl was again before the judges. The voice announced, “The word is carnivore.” I leaned forward and listened closely. “Carnivore – C – A – R – N – pause – I – V – pause – O – U – R – Carnivore.” And the storm left.
Carnivore. How appropriate! This flesh-eating, child-devouring, ruthless Spelling Bee committee had ambushed another innocent pupil.
In the end, my daughter achieved her goal of making the top five. She was dismissed from the stage with raucous cheering and instantly gained celebrity status as she walked quickly through the crowd of classmates on the gym floor. Giving and receiving high-fives and hugs from her adoring fans, apparently she had “arrived.”
The final three spellers lasted another two rounds. The winner was an amazing speller and I wouldn’t be surprised if she wins the county bee. Fortunately, I left for much more relaxing, less stressful rest of my day, working with groups of early adolescents and making presentations about the dangers of bullying. Compared to my morning, I was ready for such a peaceful walk in the park.