Regional Champion (Part 3 of 3)

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

In the weeks leading up to the State Spelling Bee competition, I began to get more serious about the gravity of the possibilities. And by getting “more serious” of course I mean my mom had a heart-to-heart talk with me about what I really wanted from life and whether I thought this might be a door opening, an opportunity to be somebody. Certainly I didn’t feel at all that she was pressuring me or trying to live vicariously through me or trying to get me to do what she wanted. She genuinely wanted to understand what was motivating me and then decide what steps we could realistically take to make that happen.

Every word that would be used in the competition (at least up through State) was provided in the little booklet that we had received. So if we really wanted to, we could technically pore over it and memorize every last one. I can’t say for sure how many words were in there, but it was at least hundreds, perhaps over a thousand. And so we practiced, me lying on the couch, my mom sitting in her chair, reading me words out of the little book, and me trying to spell them. If there’s anything worse—or more nerdy—than participating with ambitious intent in a spelling bee, it would have to be actually studying spelling words for a competition.

It was grueling. I don’t remember how long I lasted, but I’m gonna say maybe two days. At which point I told my mom, “I just don’t care anymore. If I win, I win. If I don’t, I don’t care. This studying is not worth it to me.”

I would like to say I was possessed of an enlightenment approaching Zen-like wisdom, or even that I had just had a solid education in the arts. But more likely I was just too lazy. The State contest was to be televised on our local PBS station, but that didn’t really faze me. I legitimately counted the cost and decided, meh.

Even the prizes were several notches higher than anything at regionals. The runner-up would receive an AM-FM stereo system with a killer cassette deck, which was, let’s say…tempting. But the coup d’état was that for first place—besides the trip to D.C. and all the fame and fortune and everything that goes with it—the winner would also receive a portable TV! This was huge to a seventh grade boy in 1981. I didn’t have my own TV, so that would have been like winning the lottery (presuming my parents would have allowed me to keep it if I won).

And then the worst thing that could possibly have happened, happened. Just a few days before the competition, I got sick. Really sick. Like, Brachiosaurus bronchitis and Grim Reaper cough and a persistent temperature north of 102° sick. But the show had to go on. I can remember crying in the car that night on the way to the TV station because my head hurt so badly. It was yet another of those times when under normal circumstances I probably would have been terrified out of my mind, but as it was I couldn’t even think about all that.

And then the moment was upon me.

Nobody at State seemed to have any tricks beyond the same stock techniques I had seen displayed at every other level. That is to say, if you weren’t certain about the spelling, stall. Try to give yourself some time and space to think. Ask for the definition. Ask to have it used in a sentence. Ask the judge their favorite color. You could ask pretty much anything you wanted except for them to spell the word. These were not practices that I admired nor used. For me, if I didn’t know a word, no amount of time was going to help me sort it out.

I only wish that one of the questions that you could have legally asked was, “So, pray tell me, judge: Where, exactly, do you get off asking a seventh grader from a small rural school in the United States of America to spell a word that’s not even in the English language, and in whose universe and on what planet could that ever be considered fair or appropriate, and how do you sleep at night, and I’ll bet you’re a sad, bitter little person whose life didn’t work out how you planned so now you like to take out your frustrations on helpless little kids…am I right?” (I had to change it up there a little at the end to keep it a question.)


That was the word. We were down to just eight kids remaining, and other kids were still getting words like Brachiosaurus and segregation and abysmal, and they gave me guipure. Honestly, had you ever heard that word before I just shared it with you? I hadn’t. (It’s French, by the way.)

I would torment myself for hours and hours later, watching and re-watching myself on that stupid video, but no matter how many times I watched it, I couldn’t go back in time and repair the damage.

Later that night, on the way home, my brain still throbbing and the top of my moppy hair wet with perspiration, partly from fever and partly from the suit I had to wear, my dad said we had to run an errand before we could go home. He seemed in kind of a rush. I just wanted to get home and put my pajamas on and go to bed and cry myself to sleep. But we stopped at the mall, and my mom and I stayed in the car so I could lie down in the back seat and rest while he ran in. When he came out, he was carrying a portable black and white TV, brand-new in its box. It even had an AM-FM tuner and came with headphones. It was perhaps the kindest, most thoughtful gift I can ever remember receiving in my life. I would watch that TV in my room for the next six years, and I loved it even after it died.

Thanks, Dad. I love you. I know that you were proud of me. But I’m at least equally as proud of you. You were—and are—the greatest dad in the world.


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

So who wants ice cream? Is it just me, or is guipure a crappy word to ask a seventh-grader to spell? Who was the National Spelling Bee champion in 1981? (I don’t know, either.)

One Response to “Regional Champion (Part 3 of 3)”

  1. Debbie Golden Miller Sewell (whew!) December 6, 2010 at 11:14 pm #

    I remember Dad getting the TV for you and BEING HAPPY FOR YOU- not jealous! I, too, think our dad is the most wonderful, thoughtful and giving dad on the planet and, quite possibly, the universe (our heavenly Father being the exception). I was so proud of you! You probably never even knew that. I remember how hard you worked and how proud I was to say MY BROTHER MADE IT ALL THE WAY TO THE STATE SPELLING BEE FOR GOSH SAKES!!!! I know it can’t replace THE TV Dad got for you, but I have an old, black and white mini TV in the attic. Perhaps that shall be your Christmas present??? Still proud of my super smart Bro. Love you!

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