Queen Bee

Um, hi.

I have this weird thing going on where every time I switch between programs, my Caps Lock key is randomly toggling on and off without being touched. What’s up with that?

It snowed so I stayed home yesterday. And I hate writing entries from my family’s computer for some reason. I don’t like the keyboard.

Ooh. I’m going to talk about the spelling bee, in case I haven’t ever before. See, Jamie, my youngest sister, won her school spelling bee a couple of weeks ago. The county bee is on Thursday and I’ve spent a little tiny bit of time helping her study for it. This is not going well.

The reason it’s not going well is that I have a huge ego and am used to being the Queen Bee. Or at least, I used to be the Queen Bee.

One day in fifth grade my teacher said that everyone was having a spelling test for the spelling bee. They read the words over the intercom and we wrote them all down. Somehow through all of that I did really well and was invited to compete in the town spelling bee against 6th and 7th and 8th graders. They gave me a book of words and my mother forced me to study them with her.

I think I won that town bee. I’m pretty sure I did. And that’s how it all began.

From there I went to the regional bee, made it to the finals, and made the cut for the state bee. Back then we lived in Colorado which held a joint bee with Wyoming, so it was kind of a two-state spelling bee. It was a big deal, in Denver at the Hyatt, and everyone was very excited about the whole thing.

In Colorado all the spelling bees had preliminary rounds, which were written tests, and then final rounds, which were the kind of spelling bees you see on TV. For all levels except the state, they’d take a certain number of top finishers to the next round. At state, you had to actually win the whole thing to make it to the national bee.

I didn’t make it to the state finals that year, but I did turn into a bad-ass spelling freak with a big fat ego. Newspaper write-ups, flowers, and banners from classmates will do that to a ten year old.

So when spelling bee time rolled around in sixth grade, I was sure that I’d make it to state again, and so was everyone else. My new boyfriend, bad-boy rebel 6th grader Jeff, somehow made it into the spelling bee with me. So did a bunch of my other friends.

The town bee started. All eyes were on me. I had friends and family and a new boyfriend to impress. I spelled whip-fast, tossing hair, ultra-confident.

Overconfident.

I spelled so fast that I spelled “satisfy” like this: “sastify.”

Ding.

I could see the horror on the teacher’s face. I was the star! I was supposed to win!

My parents were so pissed. And I sat home while everyone else got out of school to go to regionals that year, and vowed that it would never happen again.

Seventh grade was the year for redemption. I studied my ass off. I think I won the town bee and placed high in the regional bee. We went to state. I studied. I studied. Sometimes I skipped school to study. My English teacher exempted me from all of her class spelling tests to work on bee words. With Scripps-Howard books and pronunciation keys from the last ten years, I studied.

I missed making it into the finals by one word on the written test. One word. It sucked. I cried.

That summer my family moved to Virginia.

People didn’t make nearly as big a deal out of the spelling bee here as they had in Colorado. I had to ask a few times before I even figured out when the class bees would be held. And I learned that there were no written tests, no “final cuts.” Every level was an oral bee. You had to win each bee to make it to the next one. And instead of a state bee, Virginia had ten regional bees. The winner of each went to nationals.

Class bee – boom. I don’t remember the words. I remember that I wore a tie – it was the thing to do at the time – and I won that bee, no problem.

School bee. I’d been the hopeful for my town in Colorado, the girl who won and went to state every year. My school in Virginia already had a hopeful – Suzanne. She was rich. She had a lot of friends. She won the spelling bee every year.

The school spelling bee was held in the gym. Everyone in school attended. It usually lasted for an hour or so.

That year, Suzanne and I faced off for nearly three hours. She stumbled on “cathedral.” I knew it. I had her. I won.

When in past spelling bees everyone had rushed to congratulate me at the end, this time everyone rushed to console Suzanne, who was sobbing in the middle of the gym. I felt like crap. I hated her. But I won.

To her credit, she came to the county bee with me to cheer me on. My sister Ginny, as a fifth-grader, was in this bee too. I won on a word I don’t remember now and made it to regionals.

Sometime in middle school I had started to come down with migraines, the kind that came on suddenly, and made me throw up and lose my vision and beg to be locked in a pitch-black room until the headache had passed. On the morning of the regional bee I sat on the counter eating a granola bar and felt the vision fading from the edges of my eyes. Oh shit.

My grandparents had traveled from Iowa for this. Everyone rode together. They had to pull the van over twice on the way to the hotel so that I could throw up.

At the hotel they let me into a guest room where I sat resting my head on the toilet seat. Back then they didn’t have the migraine medicines they have now. Mom knew that Dramamine would help me but that it would also knock me out. The bee organizers told us that if I left the stage to be sick I would be disqualified. It was my last chance. I was determined to compete.

In the newspaper clippings from that day I look like a ghost, pale as paper even in black-and-white. I wobbled up to the mike to spell words, and wobbled back to my seat.

Third place was a tiny girl with a country accent who said “PARDON?” a lot with her face right on the mike. It was down to two – me, and a girl named Jennifer who I think was home-schooled. She might have gone to parochial school.

We hated the home-schoolers and the parochial-schoolers equally because they didn’t have to lead normal lives around spelling bee time. They could study spelling words all day if they wanted, or create classes just to study spelling words, and many of them did just that. Meanwhile, the rest of us still went to classes and band and sports and whatever else and studied when we could.

It got to a word I knew I didn’t know. The enunciator had kind of a muddy voice and I asked her to repeat it to make sure. “O-bod,” it sounded like.

I resorted to all the tactics spellers use to gain time. Asked for definitions, etymologies, sentences. Asked to repeat the word. And then I gave it my best shot. “O-bod. O. B. A. H. D. Obahd.”

Ding.

You never remember the words you win on. You always remember the words you lose on.

Aubade, from the French albade, is a song sung to greet the morning. I will never forget it.

I won a big fat unabridged dictionary. Jennifer won a trip to Washington. She did not, however, win the national bee and for this I was secretly glad.

I went on with my life, did some spelling competition stuff in high school, and continued on as my anal, perfectionist self.

I rented Spellbound from Netflix this weekend and was kind of nostalgic about all it brought back. When one of the girls is eliminated during the finals in Washington, she says in an interview, “I’m kind of relieved because I can throw all those books away and I don’t have to study anymore.” I felt the same way.

And now Jamie is in the spelling bee and I can’t help her study because I turn into a complete psycho when I try to do words with her. She doesn’t pay attention. She doesn’t remember to pronounce the word before and after spelling it. She stops partway through and picks up in a different place – something that will disqualify her if she does it in a bee. I am impatient. I am a perfectionist. I am the Queen Bee.

And I have to make my mother study with Jamie.

Comments 9

  • I also went to my state spelling bee (which happened to be Indiana's) and also i didn't win. AND also I've been thinking about it lately because I'm reading Bee Season. Weird.

  • I lost the spelling bee in fifth grade because I spelled cosmetics instead of cosmetic, wheover uses cosmetic anyways? It sucked and you're right, I still remember.

  • Seventh grade. St. Louis Post-Dispatch spelling bee, held at the Art Museum. First round. “Laudatory.” I spelled it “lauditory.” The shaaaaaaaaaaaaame.

  • Yeah. My losing word in fifth grade at the regional bee was savvy. SAVEE I spelled it, I was ridonculously stupid. If only I had watch Home Savvy with Joan Liebler back then!

  • Oh, and you forgot to tell them about spelling for forensics and that crazy rat faced girl from like amherst.

  • Last Year, Shadow. Shadeow Or something like that. Good god. I was actually mocked by my teacher for poor spelling.

  • whew. i need some oxygen and smelling salts.

  • I placed fifth in state in sixth grade. I only won the school because our resident spelling champ moved to Alaska that year. I too had a migraine all day–AND a bloody nose, which I also used to always get from stress. But you know what still stinks? I am not allowed to even make typos. Everybody who knows me jumps all over it–“I thought you could SPELL!”

  • when i was a kid i was alwys competing in the spelling be a grade above my own (we silly NU kids). and then in third grade i got there, all kinds of psyched, and i got the word milkman.

    “milkman. m..a….”

    my sister was a not-always-well-liked sixth grader so all the kids in her grade from the neighborhood picked on me without mercy, running up and going “m…A….” and then cackling. it was awful.

    i made it two away from my school bee later on though.

    (what is this written test crap? i would have been WAY better at that…i get stumbly spelling out loud)

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