Wish I could say I didn’t sweat my way through the spelling bee . . .

spelling bee

. . . but that would be a lie.

I’ve never been so terrified of the English language in my life.

And I was not competing.

When I was asked to be the official word caller for a county-wide spelling bee this week, my gut instinct was to run screaming into the cold, snowy night. Though I don’t generally mind public speaking, my head has been so full of home stuff that I worried I couldn’t fit any other stressful event into my panicking brain.

But, you know, it worked out. Load up on caffeine and do that thing, I say!

As a staff member of the local newspaper sponsoring the bee, I felt it was my professional duty to help out. And I like an adventure, a challenge. I said from the get-go that, if nothing else, it would make for a good story.

And here we are. Without potentially-embarrassing challenges, we’d have nothing to share over dinner, right?

Or, in my case, on a blog.

I was tasked with saying a word for each student, then offering the requested definition, sentence, etc. Though I participated in spelling bees as a kid and watch the national competitions sometimes, I didn’t know much about the official rules. And oh, there are official rules. After boning up on the ins and outs, I plunged headfirst into the murky waters of studying for the bee myself.

This was a middle school event, I reasoned. How hard could it be?


Guys, some of those words were ridiculous. Insane. Unpronounceable . . . even to me. And I’m a book nerd, as we know. I got my bachelor’s in English. I read like a madwoman. I have a daily calendar featuring nothing but word origins, and I consider myself a wordsmith. But this? These? Some of the terms were completely foreign to me — “azimuth,” “keelhaul” — and I spent the better part of Sunday studying like I was back cramming for final exams in college.

Despite being out of school for seven years, I have this recurring nightmare that I’ve signed up for a class and forgotten all about it . . . only to realize it’s the end of the semester, you know, and I haven’t shown up for any of the tests. It’s usually a math class, given numbers make me clammy, but sometimes it’s a history course. Or this crazy logic class I once took.

The spelling bee? This is what that felt like. Like I was late to a party to which I didn’t know I’d been invited, and oh yeah — the party features 49 anxious kids staring at you intently, watching your mouth move for the exact pronunciation of an obscure word. Which you can’t screw up. While parents and teachers and administrators stand by, waiting for you to falter.

I was sweating. Sweating so much.

THE PRESSURE. Oh, the pressure!

Joining the bee as word caller was a last-minute thing, and I felt completely adrift . . . save the packet of 300 words delivered to me Friday. Those words became my anchor, a life raft.

I didn’t want to mess up. Look silly. Embarrass the paper. Look dumb. I was worried I’d trip up on the words, bumbling and stuttering . . . looking completely inept, basically. I was worried my throat would close up, I’d have a panic attack, I’d lose it completely.

That was a bit dramatic, of course.

I did none of those things.

Everything was fine. As always.

Once I hit my stride, it was nothing to recite words and sentences into a microphone. I felt for the kids, all eliminated one by one; I remembered being in their shoes so easily, and it didn’t feel so long ago. But everyone did well, very well, and I was proud.

Of them. And of me.

As I always tell my dad (which always makes him chuckle), Once again, my worst fears were unfounded.

I worry and worry and obsess about these things, and somehow? They always go off without (much of) a hitch. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

Thank God for my theater background, though. Being a drama geek in high school has served me well over the years. Once chronically shy, my mom has always said she wanted to save my sister and me the paralysis of public speaking by teaching us not to be afraid of standing in front of a group. My parents got us into dance lessons as soon as possible. I was 3 when I took my first class, and I learned not to be afraid of putting myself out there.

I’m very grateful for that — but I still get scared. I push through it, though. And the bee? It was fun! Really fun. I was honored to have been asked. Tuesday’s winner will be advancing to the national level, and I hope we’ll get to see her in the big competition.

And me? I’m going to go breathe into a paper bag now.

And keep studying, maybe.

You never know when you’ll need to find the azimuth, y’all.

16 thoughts on “Wish I could say I didn’t sweat my way through the spelling bee . . .

  1. It is always useful to look through the glass from the other side. Until reading this, I had always thought first and only about the young spellers and what they were experiencing. Never did consider the judging challenges. Future spelling bees will be much more fun to watch.


  2. Great post – very original! I had to look up azimuth and I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to work that into a casual conversation or if I can pronounce it correctly. Maybe I can use it if I’m helping one of my kids with math…


  3. Love this! I competed as a speller when I was younger, and it’s such a high-stress environment! You wouldn’t think so. A “crushing” loss my sixth grade year led to a complete all aversion to all things spelling, including Akeelah And The Bee, which I refused to watch, and for the sake of the joke, have still never seen. I like your perspective as an official. Fun to read. 🙂



  4. Well done to everyone for getting through it, you included. Public speaking doesn’t tend to bother me too much. I did drama at school and was in the drama society at university and studied journalism, but I’d have been really nervous if I had to do anything like that, either as a speller or a caller.


  5. How cool! I’m glad to hear everything worked out okay in the end. Isn’t funny how we stress and plan and worry for all the bad stuff that *could* happen and then it just doesn’t. It’s almost a let-down in a weird way. Also, I just love that you participated in a spelling bee. When I was in elementary school, I made it to the regional spelling bee and missed out on the finals (and the state competition) by just one word. Of course, I still remember the word and still feel totally embarrassed to this day for messing it up, too!


  6. I can sympathize only too well, Meg! For the first twenty years of my life, I was a stutterer and everything in public life was a drama, believe me. I overcame my speech defect to a great degree, but in times of stress I can still falter over a word and I become a machine gun spraying vowels and consonants indiscriminately. The embarrassment can be intense, but I persevere and place myself in positions where public speaking is no longer the utter terror it used to be. I find that if I have less time to think about it and jump right in, I do better than if I have weeks to prepare and imagine all kinds of horrors. Well done, Meg!


  7. I organize the Spelling Bee at my school and I’m just glad I get to be a judge. It’s much easier to recruit parents to pronounce words for me…and yes, it stresses them out as well!! 🙂


  8. That is really awesome that you got to do that! I just tweeted the other day that I wish I could be in a spelling bee for adults. 🙂 I would have been panicking too though, if I was in your boat, especially trying to pronounce some of those words!


  9. I actually competed in two district-wide spelling bees when I was a kid…definitely nerve-wrecking. But probably more fun to be the person behind the podium than one of the contestants!


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