Regional Champion (Part 2 of 3)

(This is part two of a three-part series. Part one is here.)

My next stop was of course Regionals. Each school sent their winner and runner-up, so you really only got one shot at your own little taste of the 8 Mile dream.

During the competition at school, I hadn’t really taken it seriously, and I just kind of went with the flow. There were no prizes or anything, unless you count the bladder-expansion-inducing fear of having to spell on demand, competing against brilliant minds from other schools before a crowd of parents who were every bit as ‘roided up and amped as the parents you’ll find at any weekend Metro area soccer league. Under such circumstances, I imagine it’s far worse to hear your dad rage from somewhere in the room, “Spell it, Jimmy! Get in there and get yours! Rip those dork-weeds’ pocket protectors right off their chests!”

My dad of course would never say such a thing, whether at a spelling competition or at any sporting event. And to be fair, while technically I didn’t actually hear that there, I know some kids’ dads were thinking it.

The Daily Oklahoman provided little staple-bound booklets that explained all the rules and lined out all the schedules and listed all the words and, in the back, perhaps most importantly, told what the prizes were. First prize for winning at Regionals was a sophisticated solar calculator. Reading that disappointing fact, I couldn’t help thinking, So THIS is what the organizers of this competition think of us:

“Hey, the kind of nerdy kids who might win a regional spelling bee are exactly the sort of dorks who’d geek out over a solar calculator.”

Um, need I remind you, Mr. I’m-On-Top-Of-The-World-In-My-Career-And-Going-Places, that you’re organizing and presiding over a regional spelling bee made up of middle schoolers in Oklahoma which, although some of us here like to think of it as living in the buckle of the Bible belt, most of the rest of the country pictures us instead as the dirty bellybutton of the Lower Hillbilly Kingdoms? (It’s true. I read a survey online.)

And then I discovered some fine print. Not only the Regional Champion, but also the Runner-Up, would both be guaranteed slots to compete at the State Spelling Bee. The top winner of the State competition would then be flown with one guardian (expenses paid, of course) to Washington, D.C., to compete at Nationals. And we all know where the winner of that mêleé ends up: Lucrative endorsement deals, recording contracts, a butler, etc. A diabolical wrinkle, to be sure.

Random aside: I wonder if in French spelling bees, they have to specify all the wacky accent marks their words include. The main reason I love to spell “mêleé” in the proper French way is because that first tiny “e” looks so adorable, like it’s wearing a silly little hat. But I digress…

This of course led me to check the second prize: A cheap knockoff of a Sony Walkman cassette player. I only make this particular distinction because I want to be perfectly clear: It wasn’t a Sony. It wished it was a Sony. On Saturday nights this player would get all dolled up to go out with its friends and they’d talk about all the ways they were better than Sonys anyways and laugh about how snooty the Sonys were in their club that none of the knockoffs could get into and besides they didn’t want to go to those clubs anyway, because it was probably really lame in there. But any kid who’s ever been in the seventh grade knows: Any music player is better than any calculator any day.

I don’t know if it was because I honestly didn’t feel any pressure, or because it occurred to me at some point that I didn’t care what any of these people at Regionals thought of me because I realized that even if I bombed terribly there none of them would even remember me, or if I actually was so terrified and traumatized by my fears that I have a huge gap in my memory of the event so that today it doesn’t even register with me. But whatever the reason, I breezed through Regionals. I mowed down all those dork-weeds, a flurry of pocket protectors floating to the ground like so much chaff. (And that was without even a hint of irony.)

All of them, anyway…save one. When I first began to reflect on this story, I thought I would tell you the girl’s name. Because I remember it like it was yesterday. She was a seventh-grader from Heritage Hall, and she was my spelling nemesis—my spellemesis, if you will. But then I googled her name and, hand to God, I found her in less than two minutes. She taunts me still, from out there in the ether of the cyberworld. (She evidently is a successful surgeon today. With her permission, perhaps I shall share more of our story another time.)

But on that day, we progressed into the final two, at which juncture the organizers took the opportunity to try and build some drama—as much as you can at a spelling bee of middle schoolers, anyway—explaining to the crowd that both of us would be going on to compete at State. In that moment, we were Titans. And then, once it was time to spell again, I kicked into gear my ingenious plan. The very next word they gave me…I threw under the buss. I smirked shrewdly. Take that, Heritage Hall hussy! Enjoy your solar calculator.

All she had to do was spell my missed word correctly. But she was having none of it. She misspelled it as well, albeit in a new and creatively incorrect manner. Succubus! Wenchical! Cheat! It was my turn to take back the competition. To the shock of all the adults in the room, I missed my next word too. (Collective gasp.) She had the opportunity to steal. And she feigned that perhaps she was descended from secluded mountain people, themselves descended from something less than apes. She missed it. Again, differently, creatively.

Turn for turn, we took dives, trying for second place to grasp that crappy Walkman knockoff. I can’t say how long it went on, but I can tell you it was an uncomfortable stretch. At least five words. Finally, her patience and restraint got the better of me. I could stand it no longer. When I spelled my next word correctly, she positively radiated. Miraculously, she missed.

I have that calculator to this day. And it still works. (Bet she can’t say either of those things about her cassette player.)


Up next: State.

Did you ever shame your family in some competition for selfish reasons? Did you ever take a dive in a contest you by all rights should have dominated? When a hole wears in one of your favorite socks, why do you think it’s always just in one of them, and they both don’t wear evenly? I can never bring myself to throw away that perfectly good sock, even though it no longer has its companion, not unlike the sad dog at the end of Where the Red Fern Grows.

2 Responses to “Regional Champion (Part 2 of 3)”

  1. mary December 3, 2010 at 1:22 pm #

    Hey, Brannon. I went to Regionals, too as the school runner-up. I think I made it through 2 or 3 rounds before getting knocked out. I don’t even remember the word that year that I went out on but I do remember watching you and that girl bomb your words!! And then I also watched you later on PBS at the State spelling Bee. But, I think that’s probably another story!!

    • Brannon December 5, 2010 at 11:35 pm #

      I didn’t remember that. (I drank an awful lot in those days.) But I made a slight adjustment to correct the accuracy of this story. Thanks for the heads-up.

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