Doesn’t everyone have a lucky spelling bee dress?

Many years ago, in the late 1980’s, an incredibly awkward nine-year-old girl moved from Asuncion, Paraguay, to Miami, Florida. Having lived her entire life in South America, she had no idea who Madonna was; she wore her backpack on both shoulders (gasp!); she didn’t know the right way to roll her socks; her knowledge of TV was limited to Sesame Street and He-Man and maybe a couple of Snorks episodes (like Smurfs, but underwater!); she read books under her desk and while she walked down the halls; and she was definitely not cool.

But!: she could spell. And this being fifth grade (a terrific time to be the new kid), she could win the school spelling bee (a really terrific way to make new friends) (<– warning: this is sarcasm. Do not actually try making friends this way at home.).

This took her to the Miami Herald Dade County Spelling Bee, in an auditorium at an actual university, which was tres cool for nine-year-old me. In preparation for this event, her mother somehow managed to convince her to spend two months studying spelling words for hours a day, with no TV that whole time (a lifestyle guaranteed to up one’s cool factor), in exchange for (drumroll…) ICE CREAM! At the end. After the Spelling Bee. When she’d EARNED it. (My mom is full of dastardly schemes like this, but it probably helps that I always fall for them.)

In fifth grade the kid only got a dictionary with her name on it, like all the other competitors, but in sixth grade she actually won the Elementary School competition. However, only the winner of the Middle School competition gets to go to Washington, D.C., and that was not me.

On the plus side, this might have been one of the luckiest things to ever happen to me, because had I actually made it to D.C., the entire COUNTRY could have been witness to my extreme ten-year-old dorkiness. Just one example: at the time, I had this dress that I totally adored. It was red with a white sailor collar and bright gold buttons down the front. I LOVED this dress (in fact, I think I loved it so much that I forced my mom to keep it, meaning it is still in a closet in her house, waiting to pounce on an unsuspecting grandchild somewhere down the line, who will probably feed herself to our robot dogs before agreeing to wear it, but still). That was my lucky dress, and I was GOING to wear it to EVERY spelling bee because THAT MEANT I WOULD WIN. Undaunted by the not-winning I did in fifth grade, I wore it again when I came back in sixth grade, thinking it would be HILARIOUS and awesome if someone recognized me and was like, hey! the girl in the red dress! I remember her from last year!

Yes. That’s how cool I was.

So I can almost guarantee that if I had made it to Washington, D.C., I would have worn this dress to BOTH days of the competition, and maybe the whole rest of the time, too, because (a) I was ten, and (b) my mom was very agreeable, and (c) it was my LUCKY DRESS and if I DIDN’T wear it I would DEFINITELY lose! Now, what ace reporter could pass up that kind of hilarity and classic I’m-a-dorkitude?

As you can see, it was a very close call. Fortunately, the danger passed, and shortly thereafter we moved to the Dominican Republic, where they were like, “spelling! pfft! not impressed! can you drive a tank? can you harvest sugar cane? then WHAT GOOD ARE YOU?” (yeah, OK, that might be a slight exaggeration.)

But don’t ask me which words I misspelled and got kicked out on, because I am the only spelling bee geek in the world who can’t remember. I know! Isn’t that bizarre? I have plenty of friends who are still obsessed with the one word they got wrong that knocked them out of their bees. It’s apparently a huge scarring moment for many children, but it sailed right past me, probably because in my head I was going, “woo hoo! I’m done! Time for ice cream!”

Anyway, the moral of that story is, I love spelling bees (because I am still a geek, only prouder of it now, and with better socks), and I love stories about spelling bees. My favorite is the documentary Spellbound, which is brilliant and features the most amazing kids (we love you, Ashley! you rock!). I also loved Bee Season, the book by Myla Goldberg, although it got a bit mind-bendingly confusing in the middle and at the end. But the descriptions she includes of what it’s like to sit on that stage with a cardboard number around your neck, waiting to stand up and fiddle the microphone down to your own height, hoping you get a word you know and that you pronounce it right — it was EXACTLY the way I remembered it.

And this past weekend, we went to see a hilarious musical, which I highly recommend if you’re ever in New York, or if it’s ever playing near you:
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee!
It is, of course, about a spelling bee, featuring a cast of wonderfully awkward middle-school spelling champions (played by grown-ups, but very well). At the beginning, they call a couple of people out of the audience to join the spellers on stage (and I have to admit I’m glad I wasn’t picked, because my family would have made mad fun of me when I inevitably got something wrong).

This was my favorite exchange:

Spelling Announcer Guy: [Audience member], your word is: “cow.”
Audience Member: Cow?
SAG: Cow.
AM: Um…can I have a definition, please?
SAG: It means cow.
AM: Can I have it in a sentence?
SAG: [pause] All right: “Please spell cow.”

I have to assume the audience members were told to ask for definitions and sentences, but it was SO funny.

Nowadays the national spelling bee is shown on ESPN, which I think is just the coolest thing ever. I wonder if being on a sports network makes these kids any cooler to their friends back home. Spelling sure is my kind of sport. Yay for word geeks!

Quote of the Day: “I like the noise of democracy.” – James Buchanan