Our Fifth Grade classes (all two of them*) had gathered in our school’s Media Center/Library. Each Friday, our classes had held a Spelling Bee. And now, all of the winners of those previous competitions from both classes were together in a no-holds-barred, winner-take-all, Spelling Bee grudge match with One Speller to Rule Them All. The winner, of course, would represent our tiny Stockwell Elementary in the Regional Bee. An the winner of that went on to the National Spelling Bee. This wasn’t some run of the mill Spelling Bee. It was for all the marbles.
The stakes couldn’t be higher.
When our teacher announced who would represent our class in the Fifth Grade Battle Royale, I must admit I was a little shocked when she called my name. “I never won a Spelling Bee,” I protested. I honestly didn’t remember winning any of the Friday showdowns. But several of my colleagues disagreed with me. And my teacher disagreed with me. So I was included in the list of contestants.
I was a Finalist in my school’s Spelling Bee.
I felt ill-prepared and under-qualified. As we walked into the Media Center/Library, I’m not gonna lie: I felt like the proverbial lamb heading to the slaughter. I was doomed. I was prepared to be a quick Out, getting disqualified on the first word I tried to spell.
Things didn’t work out like that, though. They rarely work out the way they play out in a Fifth Grader’s mind. Do they?
I spelled my first word with no problem. Amazingly enough, I don’t remember what word they gave me. Then I got another one right. Contestants were dropping like flies, but I was still in the game.
Then a good friend of mine misspelled a relatively easy word. It was either “there” or “reed” or something like that – a homophone that you’re likely to misspell if you don’t ask for a definition. He spelled the wrong word. He chose poorly.
Things started looking up
I started wondering if I was actually going to win this thing. There were only FOUR contestants remaining. I was one of them! Yes, maybe so! I could possibly win the Spelling Bee!
Another friend misspelled a word. I knew right away that she did. The word was a piece of cake. Instead of getting harder, this thing was starting to get easier. Victory was within my grasp. And I was ready for it.
And then there were TWO.
Another friend misspelled a word. I don’t remember what it was, but I know I knew how to spell it. That left two of us. There was just one more person standing in between me and Spelling Bee glory. I saw myself as the Underdog, since I didn’t think I belonged there, anyway. I was David and I was ready to slay Goliath and claim my prize.
We battled back and forth. My competitor was tough. You could cut the tension with a sharpened No. 2 pencil. Neither one of us was going to budge.
“Spell the word, ‘Exercise.'”
That’s what the Teacher told me to spell. And my stomach dropped. I felt like Charlie Brown during the National Spelling Bee when he was told to spell the word “Beagle.”
I don’t remember how I spelled the word. I knew there was a “C” in there. And I wasn’t sure if there was a “Z” or an “S” at the end. I might have spelled it “excersise” or “excersize” or something like that. The details don’t really matter at this point. I know I spelled it wrong.
The bell dinged. I was done. Finished. I finished second. Runner-up. It was quite an accomplishment. I was named the Alternate Representative for our school, and given a copy of a book of words to study for the Regional round of competition – just in case the winner was somehow unable to fulfill his duties. There was a lot to be proud of. But I was still disappointed.
“You never forget…”
When we sat around the dinner table that evening, I told everyone about how I almost won the Spelling Bee. I showed some disappointment in myself for missing the word “exercise.”
“Well, I can tell you one thing,” my Dad said, offering some encouragement . “You won’t ever forget how to spell ‘exercise.’ I still remember the word I missed in our school’s Spelling Bee. And I’ll never forget how to spell it.”
I’ve never forgotten how to spell “exercise.” I will never have to look it up again.
The same is true about street signs. When I took my test for my Driver’s License (on April 1, by the way), I only missed one sign: the car with the squiggly lines underneath.
I couldn’t decide if it was telling me that there was a curvy road ahead or if it was slippery when wet. I knew there was another sign that actually says “Slippery When Wet,” so I said it was a curvy road. I chose…poorly.
This sign is etched into my memory. I will never forget it. I doubt I ever will. Even if I’m old and can’t tell you the difference between a Stop sign and a Yield sign, I’m confident that I’ll be able to tell you that this sign means Slippery When Wet.
Why do we do that?
When I began writing about my Spelling Bee experience, I was planning on asking why we focus on the negative? I finished second in the whole school. I was the Alternate Representative for our school. Pretty cool, right? Why focus on the misspelled word?
Why focus on the one sign I missed on a test 25 years ago?
Because that’s how we learn from our mistakes. That’s how we grow. That’s how we get better.
There shouldn’t be any surprise that I’ve made a lot of mistakes over the years. But I have a choice to make: I can wallow in self-pity, beating myself up for something as minor as a misspelled word, or I can get up, learn from that mistake.
I choose to get better. I choose to keep improving and to learn from my mistakes.
Hopefully, you do, too.
* You read that right. We only had two Fifth Grade classes at our school. We were the Stockwell Woodsmen and we were a relatively small school. And I loved every minute of being part of that small community.