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When Letters Fight Back


Jane Fox

I smoothed out the clean, crisp dress that my mother purchased especially  for today and sat down in a wobbly plastic chair. The defining moment of my fourth grade year rested delicately in the hands of our annual spelling bee. 

I have always been very good in English, and a small part of me felt confident that I would take home the top honor of being crowned the spelling bee champion. 

Big words, small words -- I knew them all. "Medicine," "communication,"  "autumn," or "address" -- I could spell any with ease. Yes, it was clear in  my mind that this day was my moment in the limelight.  It started a week earlier during which every fourth and fifth grade class held a small spelling bee and chose a couple of students to represent them in the school competition. I breezed through the drills and came out on top. 

My teacher at the time handed me a packet the size of a car manual full of  words to study. I thumbed through the packet and skimmed a few pages before deciding that these words, even the large ones, were already common knowledge to me. At the time, I was considered one of the smartest students in my grade, and although I tried to be modest about it, I could not help but assure myself that my amazing ability to retain information would bring me victory on this important day. I carried on life as usual and anticipated taking home the gold.

So there I sat, waiting politely for my nametag to be pinned on so that  everyone would know who the smart brown-haired girl was. The small colored chairs were lined up along the side of the library, filled with other kids hoping to make their parents proud. To my surprise and delight, I saw a teacher carrying a video camera that she set up on a tripod directly in front of the word-giver's table. Now my intelligence would be broadcast, and I could be recognized for my achievements. 

Teachers and librarians spent a few minutes organizing all the children before they stepped in front of the camera and announced the commencement of Osceola Elementary School's Annual Spelling Bee. Nervous excitement fluttered within me, and I wanted desperately to jump up and showcase my talent. Finally, the first round began. I almost laughed at the simple words they were assigning. "Summer," "driveway," and "jacket" were far too easy at my level. 

A few rounds passed and the words became a little more challenging, but  not too hard for a bookworm like myself. Eventually there were only four of us left standing. Truthfully, I had become a little bored and just wanted to  get this thing over with when I stepped up again. With the microphone  looming over me, I waited patiently for my word. Smiling into the camera, I  felt like a superstar. The all mighty word-giver smiled back and read from  her paper. 

"Your word is toboggan." Suddenly, I felt as though every letter in the  alphabet came crashing onto my stomach, each consonant and vowel throwing me to the side and making me violently seasick. How could this have happened? 

How could I have no idea how to spell the word toboggan? As a cruel joke, my memory let me recall glancing at the word in the pamphlet. Unfortunately, I could not decide where all of the B's and G's went, or whether it contained an A or an E. I swallowed hard and stared at the ground.

"T," I began, slowly reviewing the letters in my mind before actually  speaking them. "O, B," I said, and froze. Which letter would bring me  success? Pounding my brain for a reply, I came up with nothing. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, praying to God for a simple letter. He must 
have been busy because my mind was still a complete blank. I had to make a guess.

"B," I spoke slowly, and before I could fight over the next letter, I heard the delicate "ding" of a bell.

"I'm sorry, that is incorrect." At this point, the letters dancing in my  stomach immediately rose and pushed as hard as they could on the back of my eyes, trying to make my tears visible. I walked away from the camera and ran to my chair, sliding down so no one could see the shame running down my cheeks. A librarian gently set her hand on my shoulder.

"Honey, you have to go back to class now." Tears rushed out even faster  as she guided me to the door. How could I go back to class now, when  everyone had seen what a failure I was? I ran to the nearest bathroom and cried until my eyes hurt, and it felt like every letter had slowly poured its way out of my head and down my chin. I slowly walked the empty halls to my classroom, contemplating the horror of my situation. As the red wooden door opened, twenty sets of eyes followed me as I quietly sat down and nonchalantly watched the conclusion of the spelling bee with them. There would be no orange juice and donuts for me. There would be no blue ribbon with "# 1" monogrammed on it. There would be no county spelling bee. 

This horrible experience may have been for the best, as I finally learned  the evils of over-confidence. However, the pure trauma forced me to hate the word "toboggan," and I refused to ever learn the correct spelling. Whether written with two B's and one G or one B and two G's, I will never forget the sheer humiliation and terror brought upon by a single word.

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