Thursday, December 6, 2012

Spelling Bees and Life

Is there a more awkward, obvious way to torture children than a Spelling Bee? This morning I witnessed my own child’s Bee. To be fair, she was not up to her normal revel-in-the-spotlight self. She wasn’t feeling well, woke up on the wrong side of the bed, and was rushed out the door to run for the bus. And spelling isn’t necessarily her thing. It’s her brother’s thing. Which he reminded her of before the qualifying test. “They didn’t have the Bee when I was in Middle School, so you’re my only chance.” (None of us pointed out that there is another child in the house. That one’s still warming to the idea of spelling words correctly.) 

After she qualified for the school Bee, her older brother decided he could “train” her. He asked her to spell nonsense words he made up in an attempt to teach her patterns. It made a pretty hilarious comedy routine for the rest of us, but sadly, his efforts were a little too late (first practice was the night before the Bee). She was undone in the third round of the Spelling Bee by the word ‘receptacle’. Tricky word. I had to type it slowly. 

The thing about Spelling Bees is that the words are chosen at random. You might get ‘dog’ or you might get ‘reluctant’ or you might get ‘contemporaneous’. It’s very much a game of luck. And good memory. And the ability to keep track of where you are in the word as you spell it out loud. Some kids had pens with them and wrote the word out on their hand and then simply read it in to the microphone. Seems like cheating to me. I was surprised my daughter didn’t employ this method since she is constantly scrawling the lyrics of her favorite songs on her arms. 

At any rate, as I watched my beautiful, smart child on stage nervously trying to recall “receptacle” my heart hurt. She is so very bright, but at that moment she felt much less than bright. In fact, when I met her on the way out, she said, “I’m so stupid.” Wrong. I told her this and pointed out that she was one of only 28 students out of the entire school who had qualified to be on that stage. Still, she walked out of there feeling less smart.  

I’m sure the Bee affects different kids differently and deep down she is proud of the fact that she qualified for the Bee. Her brother certainly is. I heard him bragging to another high school student that his little sister had qualified for the Spelling Bee. He then went on to explain his inventive training program. 

A long time ago when my oldest child was lamenting that he wasn’t a superstar soccer player, his father reassured him that he was a superstar in other areas. He told him, “If there was a travel team for reading, you’d be on it.” So I guess the Spelling Bee is basically the travel team for English. It’s something to be proud of and an experience that will most likely seem better in retrospect.  

I hope the memory will be one of pride and not failure. Our kids are constantly putting themselves out there – testing their academic prowess or their athletic ability. Measuring themselves against their peers. The test of character is not which round they make it through in the Bee or how many goals they scored in the big game, it’s what they do with the assessment of their abilities. Are they proud of their efforts? Will it inspire them to work harder or will it cause them to pack up and go home?
We are constantly judging ourselves. I’m not sure if it is good or bad, but I know that it is a constant. Very few people, if any, refrain from comparisons. Spelling Bees are brutally embarrassing ways to rank abilities.  

When my daughter comes home this afternoon, I will tell her again how well she did. I will watch her face to see if the Bee has inspired her or defeated her. This was a big, public assessment, but every day in smaller ways our kids are working out their spot in line. They wrestle with the demons that doubt them. They are sorting out their abilities, their preferences, trying on possibilities. Society tells them that they must be the best. Just getting on the stage is not enough. 

Most likely she will have already left the Bee at school. “Spelling,” she’ll tell me, “is stupid.” As long as she doesn’t tell me she is stupid. Then she’ll sit down at her piano or pick up her guitar and make music. It is her medicine for everything that ails her. 

My youngest, non-spelling child is anxiously awaiting the results of the preliminary screening for the Geography Bee. He hopes to make it again this year. At ten, he is confident about the world and his place in it. The teen years will change all that.



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