My oldest son is a good speller. Many might even say, “a great speller.” As the woman who bore him, I put him squarely in the “great speller” camp. Heck, I’d even classify him as:
Last winter, he took part in the Denver Archdiocesan spelling bee for 4th and 5th graders. He was in the 4th grade and had never been in a contest in his life. (Unless you count the times he and his brother and sister test their skills to see who can make the loudest armpit farts. And these challenges never result in a clear winner—their fit of giggles and my shock and horror put the legitimacy of the judging into serious question.)
When we arrived at the event, held at some school a good forty-five minutes from our home parish, we both took an extra-long look around, surveying the competition. Everyone had on their game faces. Most wore their uniforms. Our school had opted to not sport the school attire. A misstep in my estimation. The kids looked smarter in their Catholic school regalia. Either way, there was more tartan plaid than at a yuppie Scottish wedding. I checked out my son’s countenance, searching his eyes for a sign of the panic I was starting to feel. A furrowed brow and a blank stare. The same look he wore as a toddler, approaching any playground bustling with rowdy kids. He didn’t just dive in and make his way to the jungle gym. He hung back and observed. He’s an observer. He was observing now. No doubt he was nervous.
Once we were officially signed in, the students were ushered into the cafeteria where they would be given a written test. Those scores would be calculated and only a small group would actually make it to the spelling bee portion. I whispered to my son, “Just do your best and pay attention. You got this!”
As we anxiously waited for the list of names of those who would advance, my son’s teacher motioned to me and said conspiratorially, “Max only got one wrong on the whole written test. I’ve never had a fourth grader do that well.” I felt like I was floating. I smiled at my son who was also elated since he had just heard his own name called.
Now he was given a paper number for his chest and a seat on the stage for the question and answer portion. Gulp. It was beginning to feel real and I couldn’t stop thinking of those crazy smart kids featured on ESPN for the National Spelling Bee. “Word origin, please,” they’d demand as they nudged their smarty pants glasses up their smarty pants noses. Max, however, looked so small up there. We are a family of introverts. I could literally feel his unease. I took my own seat, put on a convincing smile and slightly waved my very sweaty palm and began to say the rosary. The beads felt comfortable in my fingers and I quickly got in a rhythm of praying that began to calm my nerves. Then it was his turn. He walked up to the mic and looked like a poor sap, unjustly convicted, about to face a firing squad. Back to the beads. “Hail Mary, full of grace…”
The moderator spoke. “Spell adamant.” Or is it adament? Shoot! This is a hard one! “The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou, among women…” Then he scanned the audience until he landed in my eye line. He stared at me and paused… and I mean a long pause. If this had been ESPN, it would’ve been a commercial break. Then, the letters came…
A — D — A — M — A — N — T
“Correct.” Phew! “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.” I kept saying Hail Mary’s and he kept getting them right.
One by one, kids were getting picked off. But my son hung in there. As the numbers around him began to dwindle, I saw a switch happen. My formerly timid kid, who had seemed rattled by the entire scene—the crowd, being on stage, the stiff competition, began to sense that he had a winning chance to take the whole thing. The change was physical. He stood up straighter. He no longer searched for my eye line. He looked out confidently into the crowd of anxious parents with a slight, knowing smile and he answered. Quickly. There was no pause at all. He just blurted it out.
Wow! He had this thing! He really had it! It was now down to five kids, all 5th graders, except Max. Now he looked plain-old cocky. He smiled a big toothy smile. His excitement was unbridled and contagious. I continued to clasp my rosary. “Oh, my Jesus, forgive us our sins and save us from the fires of hell…” Another kid goes down. The crowd winnowed to just four. And he was up. “Lead all souls to heaven. Especially those in most need of thy mercy.” The moderator announced the next word…
“Stringy,” but it sounded a LOT like “striggy.” Uh-oh. She had barely gotten the word out when his auto-pilot kicked in and he started to spell.
The bell dinged. “Oh. I’m sorry. I actually said, “strin-gy,” this time clearly emphasizing the ING. He walked off stage and into my arms. “Great job!” I exhaled into the top of his head. “I didn’t hear her right,” he implored. “I know,” I soothed. He hadn’t won it, but I was so proud. “Glory be to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit…” We were both a little disappointed, but on the drive home, we even laughed about the word, “striggy.” And it’s a memory that will forever be engraved in my heart.