Spelling Bee

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This month, we received a story from Philip Goh, Applied Mathematics + USP, Year 2. In it, a character recollects his experience as a child in an elementary school spelling bee.

SPELLING BEE

Late 1998. Greenville, SC, USA. Bob Jones Elementary School.

Spelling bee season was in, and a list of words was circulated in class for the internal round, which would be practice for the real thing. If memory serves, there were around 120-140 words on that list, none of which were particularly tricky. That first, mock round proved to be a good gauge of things to expect in the future, though for some reason, my teacher decided to split the competition along gender lines. In any case, the guys’ section produced a stalemate when the quota of words ran out, leaving me tied with someone else. The female section ended somewhat more dramatically when the winner clinched victory in style after approximately half of them stumbled over analyze – American spelling, of course.

That was the warm-up. word, spelling, then word again. Think I got that down pat.

Sometime later (I can’t remember when) – it may have been immediately after, a week, or even a month after – the actual internal round was held. We weren’t split this time, but almost all the details preceding the finale remain a complete blur save for the unexpected fact that my rival from the mock run was eliminated early, after guessing vermicelli wrongly.

And then there were two.

Facing the original winner of the female section, I can’t recall how many rounds we went; it may have been two, or it might have been ten. But what I do remember clearly is when she miscued the word reminisce.

The way the system worked for deciding the winner from the final two was pretty simple. Your opponent misspells a word, you have to get their word right first. Then get your own word right, and you’re home free. No sweat.

Thankfully I held my nerve to spell both words correctly, the second one being the relatively straightforward comprehend.

On to the elementary school finals then.

Early 1999, after the Christmas break.

The finals were important enough to be held in the school auditorium (or cafeteria – I can’t remember which, but you get the idea). Each class from the 3rd to 6th grade had a representative, for a total of 20 students onstage in front of the entire student body. Parents and various other supporters could be seen in the crowd. Mine were conspicuously absent, I think because I didn’t want them to watch it – a strangely self-conscious decision to make, in retrospect.

A long row of seats across the back of the stage, the microphone centrally located in the front of the stage, the announcer’s podium on the far right of it, and the judges’ table in the front row. And a crowd numbering upwards of six hundred, though I have no idea how many parents came. Come your turn, take that solitary walk to the mic, listen for the announcer’s cue, do your word-spelling-word job, and cross your fingers. Get it right, return to your seat until it’s your turn again. Get it wrong, and you’re out. No second chances.

Looking back, it’s interesting to see that our spelling bee was almost completely free of the requests for definitions, examples, alternate pronunciations and etymology that characterise the Nationals. Granted that the words were much easier, but I’m not too sure how many of those options would have been available to us. Besides, I doubt I would have been able to make good use of them anyway.

And one by one, they fell.

“Please move to sit closer together” jarred me out of my reverie. It was then that I realised that there were only around seven of us left. The rest of the third-graders had long been eliminated, and the majority of the remaining were from fifth or sixth grade. And so we complied with the instructions.

It was my turn again.

“Rude.”

Did I hear that correctly? I couldn’t be sure. Can’t be so simple, hmm? But I was too timid to ask, and somewhat certain, so I went ahead anyway. Of course now it seems almost laughable that I would venture to give it a shot without complete certainty of what I had heard – but that’s what happened.

“Rude. R-U-D-E. Rude.”

“Could you repeat that, please?”

Oh no. Not allowed to change answers, anyway. Slightly louder this time.

“Rude. R-U-D-E. Rude.”

And then there was a dramatic pause. For reasons which I will probably never know, the judges conferred among themselves for awhile and I recall seeing them flip through a dictionary or two. Had I mispronounced the word? Or perhaps I had gotten the word completely wrong altogether? Not a very nice word to bow out on, surely.

Now put yourself in my shoes as the judges deliberate. You are a small (very small, relatively speaking), perfectly innocent eight-year old Asian kid in an auditorium of Americans. The last of your peers was eliminated several rounds ago, leaving you alone to fly the 3rd-grade flag. Six hundred pairs of eyes are on you. Surely no one expected a third-grader to even come close to where you are now. There’s a palpable tension in the crowd as they await the judges’ decision with interest too. Many are undoubtedly intrigued by this unknown kid who’s taken the game to the best of his seniors. Time almost seems to come to a standstill at that instant.

What goes through your mind during those tense moments?

I won’t pretend that I was a complete oasis of calm. I do, however, recall being more concerned about the judges’ decision than the pressure of the moment itself.

A moment passed…and then another…and another. There was nothing I could do but stand there and wait and hope.

“That is correct.”

And the crowd went wild.