The Crushing Realness of Spelling Bees

Oh dear.

The most famous I have ever been and ever will be was during my fourth grade year at Port Orange Elementary, when my parents and I appeared in photos on the front page of the local section of our local newspaper for my losing efforts in a county spelling bee, which turned out to be my academic and social peak.

I always tell people that the photo below epitomizes both of my parents perfectly: My dad, hands in his hair, has a pained and worried look on his face, like he is watching the hero of his favorite movie fall into enemy hands and there’s nothing he can do about it, while my mom, hand on her chin, is smiling and looking on in wonder, like the hero of her favorite movie just roasted the antagonist and she’s waiting for more.


I of course look like a kindergartener even though I was almost in fifth grade. I was wearing a Vince Carter Raptors jersey with a not-small whiteout stain on the left shoulder that was visible in the pages of the Daytona Beach News-Journal that morning. (I later thought that maybe my dad was looking worried because his youngest child appeared in the newspaper looking like he didn’t have any clean clothes.)

Spelling bees — the national one is next week, with the finals to be aired on ESPN — are cool for a lot of reasons but mostly because they give you a chance for glory by spelling words that literally no one has ever used or heard of. Somehow I won Port Orange Elementary’s spelling bee that year, so about week later I got to go to the auditorium — we were hosting the bee, which gave me an undeniable and ultimately fruitless home-court advantage — for the county bee, which was second only to the county football championship in terms of popularity and attendance. So there I was that day, powering past the paparazzi to the auditorium as I snaked through the screaming throngs of girls asking for my AIM address (yoyoma593) and if my parents had finally let me get a MySpace (no).

Before the bee began, the kid sitting next to me leaned over and started telling me how he knew this year he was going to go far, possibly even win it. He seemed a little brash but he was so sure of it that I respected his confidence and honestly was a little scared of it. My study plan had consisted mostly of reading the local sports section, which is kind of like reading Dr. Seuss without the cool parts.

A few minutes later the very confident kid was called up for his first word, which was “vegetable.” I don’t remember how this kid spelled “vegetable” but I do remember that he spelled “vegetable” wrong, and he was very disappointed and walked off the stage. Cold world, I thought, and it didn’t hit me till years later that this kid was the spelling bee version of Nick Swaggy P Young.

Somehow I made it to the late rounds, and I was feeling pretty good for making it that far and began to think that I could maybe get top 10, which means a statue of me would be erected near city hall and perhaps the girl I liked would invite me over for a play date if it was cool with her parents. All of this was racing through my mind as I walked up to the microphone and waited for the word.

“Collywobbles,” the judge said. Haha, I thought, as the room fell into a silent confusion. I’m pretty sure I even saw the judge crack a smile and fist bump his co-judge.

OK, I thought, just wait for the real word. The seconds passed as I stood there silent and nervous. I soon realized that this was not a joke: “Collywobbles” was 100 percent legitimately the word that they wanted me to spell. This was the moment when the photographer snapped the photo of my parents.

What the hell are “collywobbles?” I still don’t know even though the first thing I asked was “Could you please define it?” After the judge said some words that sounded like a different language, I said, “Could you please use it in a sentence?” and he did, and it led me no closer to knowing how to spell the word or thinking that it was an actual word.

But then I remembered that I was wearing a Vince Carter jersey and composed myself. I realized that the only question here was whether “colly” was spelled with a “y” or an “ie,” because I knew how to spell “coll” and I knew how to spell “wobbles.” So I winged it.

“C-o-l-l-y-w-o-b-b-l-e-s,” I said, and the little bell didn’t ring, and the judge said “correct,” and the crowd of moms and little brothers exploded in cheer, and right then I felt on top of the world. If I can spell “collywobbles,” I thought, what can’t I do? I began dreaming of a run for the U.S. presidency and a world free of collywobbles.

Soon there were only a few of us left, and we had all moved to the front row. The bee’s participants spanned fourth to eighth grade, so despite looking like the youngest one I was by far actually the youngest one. I was sitting near an “eighth grader.”

I didn’t realize until years later that this kid was the spelling bee version of Danny Almonte. The dude had a full beard and there are rumors that he drove to the bee. He also kept smiling at this lady in the crowd who was around his age, and on several occasions he told her, “If I win this we can use the winnings to help pay the mortgage, as long as you promise to tell your mother we can’t make it to dinner this weekend.” This lady was sitting next to a young girl who held a sign that read, “We love you daddy!” This dude was at least 34.

Meanwhile I was dreaming of when I could get home to play NBA Live 04 on the PC or watch SpongeBob on the bunny-eared TV, and this lack of focus proved to be my spelling-bee downfall.

When there were six of us left, I walked to the microphone for my word, which was “televangelist,” which sounded a lot more difficult to spell than it actually was. So I panicked and left out the third “e,” spelling the word “televanglist,” which is very hard to swallow and which of course I will never forget.

After I missed the word, the photographer snapped a picture of my painful exit. Little did I know that I would wake up the next morning a bona fide celebrity for getting sixth place in the county spelling bee. Man. Spelling bees are so real.

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