When you go to a private elementary school with an average of 10-12 kids per grade, the spelling bee is a big deal. There were no sports, no clubs, no cliques; just a spelling bee. If I won I’d be the cool kid, the kid that everyone wanted to be. Girls would want me, and the 3rd-5th grade guys would want to be me. Obviously, I was already a self-proclaimed the ladies’ man, so winning this prestigious competition would mean that dozens of love letters would be spilling out of my cubby. So I studied, harder than I ever had—flashcards, two different dictionaries, and the support of my loving family who admired my goal of becoming a lady killer. I made sure I could spell every word forwards and backwards, whether its language of origin was Latin, Greek, French, or Swahili. I even aced all my spelling tests leading up to the big day, and I just knew the blue, plastic ribbon would be mine.
I don’t think I’ve ever been as dedicated to something as I was to that spelling bee. I had an image to uphold, and I really cared about it back then. I’ve applied to colleges, taken all kinds of standardized tests, sung in musicals and chorus concerts, given a speech to a full auditorium, but in none of those cases was I there to display my dominance. The competition is what fueled me. I wanted to see the looks on the faces of the parents in the crowd as I squashed their children’s aspirations right before their eyes. There’s nothing quite like using the animalistic hankering for dominance as a motivator, but, as history has shown, white guys with a lust for power leave disaster in their wakes.
“You’ve got to look the part,” my dad told me earlier that morning as he was ironing my oxford, “A well-dressed man is a confident man.”
When the day came, I made sure that I looked like a champion: Collared shirt and jacket pressed, pants pleated to the point, zip-up tie a little longer than it should’ve been, and my hair was perfectly-parted to the right. I looked at my classmates; a bunch of unprepared hooligans about to be squashed by the Sultan of Spelling, Professor Pronoun, the Grammar Gestapo. I strutted past rows of folding chairs which would later be filled with foiled spellers and their parents attempting to console them, before walking up some steps onto the makeshift stage where the rhetorical rumble was about to take place.
I was the last speller which was great, fate would take care of half of the spellers before I had to take care of them myself. It was finally my turn to breeze through the first round. I strolled up to the podium and received my word—which I scoffed at of course—and let the letters flow from my mouth. Ding. My heart dropped, and I froze. I got it wrong. I, the Word Whiz, spelled the first word wrong. I was humiliated as I walked off the stage and was greeted by my parents. I turned around and looked to the stage, full of my peers who I’d deemed unworthy to be up there with me in the first place. I thought about my cubby, and how it would remain devoid of love letters for at least another whole year. I sat there and watched as the rest of my classmates received their words, spelling every last one of them perfectly in my head as they were announced through the microphone. I told myself that I’d just gotten unlucky, and later my dad would tell me that I’d just had a brain fart.
My mishap, a brain fart, if you will, was the result of a cocky child resting on his laurels. I was in it for all the wrong reasons. I wanted to win so people would think I was smart, because I thought my intellectual superiority was something that mattered to a bunch of kids who couldn’t even order a pizza without their parents’ consent. I hesitate to blame my attire for taking me from manageable confidence to implosion-inducing cockiness, but sometimes you really feel unstoppable in a suit.
I see or hear that word every day of my life, it’s that common, and sometimes I even find myself using it. I had spent weeks spelling words like “chlorophyll” and “onomatopoeia,” as if they’d realistically ask a nine-year old to know those, but was tripped up by the mundane. I’d completely neglected to study more age-appropriate words, concluding in my head that they weren’t worthy of my time.
I pressed the F7 key on my laptop the other day, after finishing an essay. There it was, that word, again, with a red zig-zag underneath.