Spelling is something that has always come natural to me. Even at a young age, spelling was one thing that I was really good at.
I can remember my spelling tests hanging on the refrigerator. The thin, grey recycled paper with the lines and dashes to help kids with printing upper and lower case letters held up with flimsy magnets. Usually, they were adorned with a gold star, “great job,” or a smiley face (sometimes all three).
My errors were usually made when I got over-confident. For example, I left the ‘r’ out of ‘shirt’ on one of my tests. That one seemed to stay on the fridge longer than the rest.
Spelling was my favorite part of second grade. I would blast out perfect tests week after week with an occasional slip up here and there.
As the freckle faced kid who towered over everybody in my class and weighed twice as much, it felt good to have this thing that I was truly good at. So, I was over the moon when I found out that I would compete in the spelling bee.
Yes, this would be my chance to shine.
The event would be held in the Riverside Elementary School Library. The library was filled with Apple II computers that I can only remember using to play Number Munchers, Word Munchers, Oregon Trail, and Odell Lake (you’re welcome for those links). This was to be the backdrop for me to show off my spelling talent.
I can remember sitting in front of classmates who were sitting on the floor cross-legged. Various faculty and parents stood behind them. It felt like a huge audience to me. It is now one of my first memories of the chest squeezing anxiety that I have since become so familiar with.
When it was my turn, I stepped up to the microphone and the word was read aloud.
“Helicopter. H-E-L-I-C-O-P-T-E-R. Helicopter.”
“That is correct.”
Boom. A tricky word right out of the gate but, I nailed it. The nerves and anxiety were gone. I couldn’t wait to get up and spell my next word.
I patiently waited until it was my turn again. None of the other participants were eliminated on their first word, but, nobody got a word as difficult as helicopter either.
I stepped up to the mic again and listened carefully.
Quickly I said, “Baby. B-A-Y-B-Y. Baby”
That anxiety came back, along with a lump in my throat that made it feel like I swallowed a grapefruit. I stood frozen with everybody staring at me.
No. NO. What did I just do? B-A-B-Y not B-A-Y-B-Y! I just lost…
That was it. My run in the spelling bee came to an end after just two words. My eyes stung as the tears began to well up. I sat down and heard giggles coming from the crowd. My nightmare.
The lump in my throat grew to the size of a cantaloupe.
Don’t cry. Don’t cry.
I did my best, but I had already started. Tears silently ran down my face and dripped off of my quivering chin as I scolded myself for not taking my time. I had just sounded it out in my head and spelled like it sounded.
I am so dumb.
I waited until recess to really let the crying begin. The disappointment mixed with the embarrassment proved to be way to much for me. I found a corner of the playground and cried, wishing that I could have another chance. Then, I heard laughter approaching.
Three girls from another 2nd grade class were headed my way spelling in unison, “B-A-Y-B-Y, B-A-Y-B-Y… Baby, baby!”
The lead girl (whose name I remember, but will not repeat here) asked, “why were you even in the spelling bee if you can’t spell baby, baby?”
The other girls laughed.
I had no response. What could I say? She was right, I made a fool of myself. I walked away saying, “just leave me alone.”
Obviously, this request fell on deaf ears. They continued to follow me laughing with the leader girl chanting, “baby, baby, baby!”
Looking back, this girl had insecurities of her own as she was by far the biggest kid in the grade (yes, even bigger than me). This didn’t last long, but she just happened to grow a lot faster than most. And, I was an easy target.
My options were running out. My next step was to go tell on these girls… the dreaded last resort, the cowards way out, but I didn’t know what else to do. When I heard the voice of my best friend.
“Why don’t you shut up and leave him alone, fatty.”
Kids are mean (but, she deserved it in my opinion).
The laughter stopped and my buddy was now walking by my side as I continued to cry.
“Who cares what they think? She wasn’t even in the spelling bee. She probably can’t even spell ‘I.'”
Not the best put down but it made me laugh. As mean as kids can be, they are the most loyal and attentive to their friends feelings. It’s because we have so little going on in our lives at eight years old that there is nothing yet to be self involved with. There is no better feeling in the world when your best friends come to your side when you need them the most. I will never forget that moment that solidified our friendship forever.
The easy thing to do would have been to leave me on my own and not be the one standing up for the giant, awkward wuss but, he did without hesitation. And that is fucking cool (sorry for the language).
“Do you want to go play kickball?”
I wiped my nose with my sleeve and managed a, “yes.”
We ran across the play ground like only eight year-olds can. Five minutes later I buried my embarrassment and self-loathing deep, not to see the light of day for 22 years.
Cheers. C-H-E-E-R-S. Cheers.
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