The Life of Bon: Spelling Bees- Sixth graders' most painful memories

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Spelling Bees- Sixth graders' most painful memories

Saturday I awoke bright and early to go watch my nephew dominate the spelling bee.

I will give you ten bones if you can guess which one of these young buckaroos in the picture below is my nephew.  Boy in the plaid shirt seriously contemplating suicide before this all starts?  Nope.  How about the mini Hogwartz professor in the red jacket?  Nope.  Him neither.  The beach bum who just barely made it in time from the morning's surf?  No no no.  He is none of those boys.

He is in fact the boy in the maroon shirt who looks wildly and totally possessed.  You see him now, looking down, only the white of his eyes are showing?  Cut it out, Eli, you're freaking us all out!

Here's a non possessed picture of him if you care.  We call him Eli- Peli round these parts.  I'm pretty crazy about him.

The beginning of the spelling bee.  Fifty five unsuspecting speller victims.

And the bee goes on.  Twenty some odd spellers left.

Spelling bees run deep in the Blackburn family.  My parents encouraged all eight of us kids to enter the spelling bees.  Some took to is better than others.  I'm pretty sure Travis got out on purpose, whereas Phil went all the way to the state spelling bee to compete.

Here's the order of spelling bees, for those of you who have not been "bee versed".  Study up!  There will be a quiz at the end of this post!

Class spelling bee winner goes onto school spelling bee.
School spelling bee winner goes onto district spelling bee.
District spelling bee winner goes onto state spelling bee.
State spellng bee winner goes onto national spelling bee.

And to tell you the truth I don't even know what the national spelling bee winner gets.  A scholarship maybe?  All they know is they air it on ESPN, now that's legit!

Eli was competing at the district spelling bee on Saturday.  Meaning that he had already won his class and school spelling bee.  All 55 people there had already won their own school and class bees.

The words started out easy enough- deluxe, parfait, leotard.  After the first round 11 kids were out.  My heart absolutely broke when one kid got the word "seersucker."  He spelled it searsucker.  After they told him he was out and corrected the spelling he whispered into the microphone, "Ah, that was my first thought!"  The kids try to hold it together on stage (The meanie spelling bee people make the kids stay on stage until the end of the round), but then when they get to their parents in the audience, they inevitably burst into tears.  I watched seersucker's mom wrap him up in her arms as he let the waterworks flow.  Something about watching 11 and 12 year old boys cry doesn't sit right with me.  My heart absolutley broke and I watched the poor kid reduced to nothing but sobs.

Eli spelled on, eventually getting 14th place in the bee.  He missed an impossibe word- one I can't even remember now because I had never heard it before.  He seemed okay with the loss, but still sat sullenly in his chair not wanting to say much.  I tried to say a few things to make him feel better, but I knew he just needed to be sad for awhile.

Here's the deal with spelling bees.  They're stupid.  All they mean is that you spelled a word wrong.  I know that's all it is.  Yet somehow they become much bigger than that, at least in my family.  They become about intelligence and competition and pride.  Yes, so much about pride.  You study so hard for that spelling bee, practicing words day in and day out.  You want it so much.  And then you misspell one impossible word and it's all down the drain.  Your time, your effort, your sacrifice.

I'll never forget when I lost my school spelling bee in fifth grade.  I wanted it so much.  I studied my heart out.  I thought nothing but spelling bee for weeks on end.  The great day arrived, my dad got off work and he arrived with my mom so together they could cheer me on.  One o'clock in the afternoon on a Tuesday and there were both my parents, so excited for me.

I breezed through the first words- easy words like cupcake and jeep.  Please, give me something challenging, I thought.

And then he did.

"Contestant #14, your word is pyramid."
"Pyramid!"  I said confidently "P-"
Suddenly my mind froze.  I had gone over this word literally a dozen times, but the thing with spelling bees is all of a sudden you can't remember how to spell a word you swear you know by heart.  You trip up on the easiest ones, the ones that never gave you any trouble.
"R-y or r-y?  I thought.  "r-y or r-y?  R-y or y-r?!?"  Panic set in. The lights were glaring, the other kids tapping their shoes impatiently behind me.
"P-r-y-a-m-i-d." I spelled.
"I'm sorry, that is incorrect."

And just like that, spelling bee victor dream was shattered.

I remember trying to hide the tears back, but without much success.  I wanted to win so badly!  To go onto the district bee, to prove how friggin smart I was!  To prove to my parents that they should be proud of me.  "Look dad! Look mom!  Look how good of a speller I am!  I spell better than every single person in this school!"

Isn't childhood weird?

I cried all day.  Seriously.  I couldn't stop.  There is no other way I can describe it, but that I felt my whole world was falling apart.  I was ten.  The spelling bee and making my parents proud meant everything to me.

I suppose it is for all these reasons that I couldn't really enjoy watching Eli's spelling bee on Saturday.  Don't get me wrong, I cheered him on, and I held my breath when he went up to spell, but gosh I just couldn't enjoy a second of it.  Every kid that got out broke my heart.  Somehow I wanted them to all stay in.  To never spell a word wrong and to all feel like they were winners, as cliche as that sounds.

Sometimes I wonder.  I wonder about everything we do as children.  Everything our parents put us through and everything we will inevitably put our own children through.  Spelling bees, auditions, elections, etc.  All ways to be publicly accepted or rejected.  Is the competition good for kids?

To be totally honest, a lot of my childhood memories involve a form of rejection.  Losing the spelling bee, getting cut from the volleyball team year after year (gosh I wanted so badly to be on that team) and the worst- losing school elections.  Every year at my high school when the elections roll around I just duck my head and hope my students come out unscathed.  Last year when one of my students lost, I wrote this piece about the cruelty of elections- the highest form of high school rejection.  

According to the Daily Herald, a local newspaper that did a story on the spelling bee, the spelling bee is of great value to kids, whether or not they win because "It is not just memorizing spelling words, it is speaking in public, preparation and the discipline of study. That is a training ground for a career and academia."

All of this was spinning around in my head on Sunday when I read this article about raising resilient children.  I was so interested in what it said about why children have to face these types of "trials"- even early on in life:

As children become resilient, they understand and accept these two facts. They see life as challenging and ever changing, but they believe they can cope with those challenges and changes. They view mistakes and weaknesses as opportunities to learn, and they accept that losing may precede winning.
As children develop resilience, they believe they can influence and even control outcomes in their lives through effort, imagination, knowledge, and skill. With this attitude, they focus on what they can do rather than on what is outside their control.
Another mark of resilience is to see great purpose and meaning in life and people. A sense of purpose will help our children avoid giving up, in spite of setbacks and pressure to do so. If our children are becoming more resilient, they will develop deep values that guide them: charity, virtue, integrity, honesty, work ethic, and faith in God. They will involve themselves in what is happening around them and opt for commitment to values rather than feel alienated and avoid struggle.
I certainly don't want no ninny-pinny crying whiny children, so.... sign them up for every sport/activity/dance possible?  Put them through the gauntlet of childhood competition?
I suppose my question is this- if these types of setbacks are ultimately good for kids, and lead to happier, healthier adults, why does the pain linger?  I lost that spelling bee 16 years ago, and when I think about it I can feel 10 year old Bonnie's pain.  When I think about getting cut from the volleyball team I still feel 14 year old Bonnie's pain and when I remember losing my high school election I still feel 17 year old Bonnie's pain.   Isn't that absurd?  That as a happy, healthy, fully functioning adult that pain is still there?  Lodged somewhere in my brain or my heart- never to go away completely? 
Do you (or will you) enlist your kids in competitive sports/hobbies?  Or should we all just let the kids play in the dirt and call it a day?  And why are all life's questions so dang hard to answer?  Do you have a painful childhood memory of "losing" in some way or another?  Or are you all healed up like normal adults should be?


  1. I used to joined spelling bees when I was in middle school (every year) and they always asked us to spell Latin words, I wanted to throw the microphone.

  2. Our plan is to follow our children's leads. If they want to participate in something, go for it! But they better stick with it for a little while before jumping into something else.

    Me? I did spelling bees when I was a kid. I loved them. And in Canada, we did them in French AND English!

  3. When I was in third grade I got cut from the class chorus. I was devastated and my mom went to bat for me. She's not the type of woman to go all "participation generation" but she didn't see why a third grade chorus needed to be competitive. It meant I wasn't allowed to go to music class and she was not about to have me not getting music ed. To this day I cringe at the idea of singing in front of people but I adore my mother and know she would be there for me no matter what!

  4. I love your sense of humor about the whole thing - the pics especially (hey, after high school, they will find them one day and laugh as well!).'

    I never thought a post about a spelling be could be so entertaining.

    I am a self-proclaimed English nerd, but alas, I am visual and the whole spelling-out-loud thing was my downfall. No bee for me.

  5. The first round of the classroom spelling bee. That is as far as I ever got.

    I did pageants in high school and. . . it totally sucked when I didn't win my junior year, and then I got second place my senior year (which ended up being just perfect, but that's another story) and while losing hurt it taught me empathy and losing with grace and try try again and all that jazz. I think it was a very fun adventure and I wouldn't want to have missed it just because of the fear of losing/rejection.

    I'll be honest, I didn't know where this comment was going when I started typing, but I like it. I might have to do a blog post about my pageant days. . .

  6. i still remember being in the spelling bee in elementary school! it was terrible. i honestly thought i was going to win because i was the best speller in our class (or so i thought). then i got the word potato, and i added an E at the end! i was horrified!

    i think there's a balance with kids between challenging them and making them work hard. but then also making sure they know they are loved and safe regardless of the outcome. haha that's definitely the teacher in me talking!

  7. Maybe those hard things are there to remind us that the world doesn't revolve around us, that there are other people with dreams of winning, too.

    My son recently was one of the final 13 in his school spelling bee. When he got out on an easy word, he was crushed because he's an amazing speller. It was good for him to learn to lose gracefully, but it hurt to see him try to hold back tears in front of the school.

  8. I remember my 5th grade spelling bee well. I had beat out everyone in my elementary school, so I moved on to the town-wide spelling bee. There was two of us from our school. I got through like 2 or 3 rounds, then I was asked to spell "polka" and I froze. I forgot the dang "L". My fellow classmate goes "how do you spell polka wrong" blah blah blah. Then I reminded him that he went out before I did because he spelled mustard wrong. That shut him up quick ha.

  9. I was in my school spelling bee in seventh grade. Then they gave me some word that started with app -- I can't remember the whole word anymore. I spelled it with only one p. Which was stupid because the word that got me into the spelling bee in the first place was sapphire. Who knows how to spell sapphire? No one! But I did. Alright, sorry for that rant. Anyway, I got my revenge. I have a degree in English and I'm an editor. Now I play judge all the time!

  10. This was a great post that got me thinking for a lot of reasons--

    1. I did sports [made varsity], and ran for student body president [and won]. The funny thing about it is, though I remember the agony of waiting for the outcome, I don't really remember much after that. I probably would have learned more from losing. My sister was on the flip side of this- tried tried tried, didn't make the team. Ran for student body, just fell short. So she found a different niche- music and baton twirling. I couldn't carry a tune to save my life, but could dribble circles around her. Our parents supported all our efforts. And then my senior year, I didn't make the homecoming court. Her senior year, she won homecoming queen. It's all give and take. Did we both deserve to make varsity? Did I deserve to make swing choir? Nope. We both had different talents.

    2. The teacher in me, but more so the coach in me, has revolted against the "everyone should make the team" mentality. Sure, I hate watching kids lose out and get their heartbroken, but I hate watching kids think they are entitled to everything even more. I hate watching kids think they can slop a paper together overnight, turn it in, and somehow DESERVE at least a B because it was the right length. I hate watching kids show up late to practice, never come to weight training, and then have their parents come to the office to complain to the coaches that their child should be playing because they've "worked so hard." [I do understand, though, that some kids, like my sister, do work very hard but just don't make the cut because they lack the natural ability…and that sucks].

    So…I'm all for letting my kids GO FOR IT…and get their heart broken in the process. Does that sound heartless? I hope not, because I think it will teach them that they aren't entitled to something just by showing up.

    whew. You got me going, Bonnie. Sorry about that.

  11. I'm a tiger mom and about to sign my two year old up for dance. I wanted her to play sports but she has really developed a love for dance. So I'm following her lead.

    I played softball for 16 years and I think it's important to get kids involved in competitive sports. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not going to push my kid until she cries, but if she shows an interest in something and we sign up for it then I will insist that she finishes out the season. It's important to learn how to push yourself, make yourself better and to learn how to lose gracefully.

    We should never be satisfied with just OK and always strive to be a better version of ourselves.

  12. I think I actually misspelled a word on accident when they were doing the spelling bee stuff at our school because I really hated being in front of people and I just wanted it over with.

  13. what a cutie!
    I think spelling bees scarred me for life. I would intentionally get words wrong so I wouldn't make it to the qualifying round and have to make a fool out of myself in front of the whole school.

    "can you spell cat for us?"
    me: umm K-A-T?!


    shucks... tooooo baaaaaad..

  14. Ive always been a competitive person and was definitely a competitive child. Spelling bees were always so stressful for me. Sadly I found out very quick that spelling bees were not the competitions for me!

  15. I can't spell so would not even getting into a spelling bee my spelling is that bad.....

  16. Kelseylynae got it bang on. I'm a strong believer of kids needing to feel disappointment because if they don't they grow into something pretty horrendous. And how can they truly enjoy the little victories or really enjoy when things go well? (Haha, Mormon agency buff here..)

    I just did a huge thesis project on the "Entitlement Generation" and stuff parents have done thinking that they're being nice or better have only made things worse for their kids. Things like the "trophies for all mentality" teaches kids they don't need to work hard to be acknowledged or rewarded. "Helicopter Parenting" has raised a bunch of sissies with high expectations and an overarching feeling of entitlement. It's sad!! They aren't born that way, but they're conditioned to feel entitled.

    I know I probably sound like the worlds biggest bully, but I really do have a heart. I teach swimming lessons and I cringe every time I have to fail a kid because I know how bad it sucks. But if I was to pass that kid, what good would I be doing? They'd just enter the next level thinking they're awesome and be shut down even harder the next time. Life's disappointments are a must-have for any normal and productive childhood.

  17. In third grade, my daughter was the last 3rd grader standing in the school spelling bee, ultimately coming in third overall. Her fellow third graders declared her the third grade champ and all in all, she was okay with how she did.
    However, in fourth grade, my daughter didn't even make the qualifying round - prompting many of her classmates to declare the process 'unfair'. I think she was more embarrassed than anything else. It was a good lesson for her to not take things for granted, to manage other people's expectations.

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  19. Okay since I found humor and truth in this, I want to start with the truth. The truth is, is that if a kid goes through a painful time in his or her life, he or she will be able to use that pain and struggle as motivation to be even stronger through the next challenge he or she may face.

    Humor, you ask? I apologize for the length in the truth, but it seems as though you stepped in Gus' shoes talking about the competition you were in as a child and you were demanding Shaun to get it together to understand the full potential from a spelling bee. Remember that TV show, Psych? Oh, you haven't heard of it... well you need to because there is a spelling bee that is covered to tie up a murder in the first season of Psych. I am SURE you'd love it! :]