The Rise and Fall of a Young Speller

From a young age, I fancied myself an avid speller. I jokingly believed that it had something to do with 18 letters of a linguistically head scratching long  name and as many letters of the alphabet that can be squeezed in.

It might have also been because I was a good reader.

Once a teacher would hit a certain segment of the alphabetic roll call, I would brace myself, sitting and smirking as they traipsed down the list and fall into silence. Their brows would furrow, scrunched up trying to make sense aurally of the vowels and consonants butting up against each other. If I was in a particularly nice mood, I would chime in and bellow my name out to ease the agony of mentally sounding out letters that up until now didn’t have any reason being next to each other. Otherwise, I would wait patiently as their voice jagged across my last name with the grace of a dull razor blade.

God bless Mama for believing children need to be read to before bedtime.

So I point to the given family name as the source for my spelling affinity. The way some people could make sense of the music in numbers, letters and words comprised the imaginative world I concocted for myself at a young age. I’m not sure that it’s quite this black and white for most children, but I selected a road and happily skipped down it without reverence or much reference to the other.

In grade school, like many schools, we congregated for the annual spelling bee in our individual classrooms. Against the black board ledge we would assemble waiting for our turn. I watched and listened as classmates received a word to spell aloud. I chewed on some of their words, sounding them out and silently answering them letter by letter. Other times, I held back that inimitable zest for wanting to shoot my arm straight into the air, the word barely contained in my mouth. One thing led to another and somehow I had won the school spelling bee.

I moved on to the next round of a spelling bee consisting of competing grade schools. I studied my Scripps book of words, cradling each word and reciting it backwards and forwards with the devotion of a nun counting her rosary beads.

Other kids gathered in that room and I kept myself occupied as I waited my turn. I remember little from this round other than the rather dimly lit room with all stage lights focused on the stage. This spelling bee took place on a school day. In my equation, that constituted a field trip- the day all children live for, even if they happen to be enamored with school like a certain youngster. At the end of the day, I exulted as I had passed through again and now would be up against other kids at the citywide level.

Game on.

I sequestered myself in the dining room with my Scripps book, taking my study and word play to a new level as the words exponentially increased in difficulty. I kept thinking my last name could have been in easy company with this troupe. Words that surely would not have had occasion to be peppered into everyday vernacular kept me on my toes. This new batch showed a worthy adversary in my driven young self.

The day of the citywide spelling bee, I wore a flowery dress with ankle socks and Mary Jane’s. Mama and Mom Oldine sat in the front of the car as my body was kinetic live wires of nervous energy in the backseat. I drilled myself quietly, chasing the most difficult words like cars on an imagined race track. They would turn back and try  engaging me in conversation. I stoically sat, deeply entrenched in the rote lists and black outlined images of words that hovered on the other side of my eyelids.

We arrived at the auditorium and parted ways, both of them giving me a hug and words of support. I checked in and received my name badge and number. I paced the room where we waited before the grand finale, my naturally ebullient self quiet and readying myself for what might await me.

Finally, it was time to go in.

One round, two rounds, three rounds down, I began relaxing, feeling at ease, knowing I could take extra time if I had difficulty with a word by asking for it to be used in a sentence or having them repeat it. I felt exultant. Several other rounds down, I found the words so far had been easy, I felt invincible and consequentially quite smug. It was finally my turn again and at this point when I walked forward I flashed my brightest smile, satisfied in how the circumstances were working out. I never saw it coming.

“Will you please spell potpourri.”

“Pot-pourri. P-o-p-o-u-r-r-i. Potpourri.”

“I’m sorry. You are incorrect. Please exit the stage.”

Dismay, shock, the onslaught of being caught offguard did little to help soften the blow as my shoes clicked down the steps of the stage. The rest of the spelling bee was a blur. The fact that I came in fourth place in the city of Dallas did little to assuage that gnawing sensation of being so close to meeting the challenge and winning.

If I had been quiet on the way to the spelling bee, I now settled into a cryptic silence as Mama and Mom Oldine tried to placate the growing storm inside of the quiet child in the backseat. They too, were good readers and read in my face easily all of the bitter disappointment and anger licking the walls of my fortitude like a fire about to burn the entire house down. I crumbled, caving into the rush of hot tears coursing their way down my cheeks. Mama kept trying to soothe me, kept trying to point out the positive as I slunk further into my pit of self-pity. All that time, effort, preparation and being close enough to almost touch first place in the city of Dallas, all for nothing.

But as we know when we grow up, no lesson we learn when we’re children is ever lost.

That arrogance of believing myself the better or best in a room of worthy candidates caused me to lose sight of the words themselves- their curves and loops and sounds that make meaning out of chaos. I spoke so quickly, believing myself impervious, that I was quickly toppled. I’m still learning to be a good listener, to think before speaking, to weigh each word and understand the gravitas it might bear upon the listener before uttering it. I’m still wickedly obsessed and enamored of words and our relationship to them. And potpourri still holds a special place in my heart in between revulsion and mastery.

Bok choy would have thrown my young self for a loop. It doesn’t make sense in English as the “bok” sound equivalent would be more likened to having a hard c in front of the k. Let’s be honest, bok choy did not become a part of my vocabulary until a few years ago as I continued settling into my San Francisco self. This Bok Choy Celeriac Soup with Avocado Crema asks a lot of a person- 35 characters of asking and all worth the effort. After all, some stories are best told on the tongue rather than in the ear.

Bok Choy Celeriac Soup with Avocado Crema


  1. Love, love, LOVE your story! I saw myself in little you, even though I grew up in Serbia and we did not have spelling bees (In early 19th century one man revolutionized our alphabet and made it completely phonetic and I thank him every day:)
    My three girls are wonderful spellers and I know that all those hours spent reading to them did not go to waste.
    I am so glad we hooked up on Twitter; I enjoy so much reading well-written articles:)

    1. Thanks Lana. Isn’t it amazing how the simple act of reading takes on a life of it’s own? I really think it is one of the most important gifts we can give children when they are young. It shows them that this too is a door they can open to discover new worlds and experiences yet to behold. I too am so glad we have connected on twitter and appreciate you sharing the remark about the Serbian alphabet. May we ever be learners and uncovering the new in the world around us!

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