(For the record, I actually began composing this post yesterday in my head…so it totally still counts as part of my 365 day attempt…because I’m sure you were all keeping tabs…)
Anyhoo, back to my story. I recently had this vivid memory of my 6th grade district spelling bee and the lifelong emotional damage it caused me. I started reading early and voraciously. I would read everything I could get my hands on, even (so pathetic) the dictionary…I like new words. Don’t judge my nerdiness. Ok, go ahead and judge.
I started kicking ass in spelling bees in elementary school, and to be honest, I got a bit cocky. I made it to the district spelling bee in 6th grade and walked up to the microphone with overwhelming confidence to totally destroy my first word. For those of you who have witnessed spelling bees, they always start with the super easy baby words and then slowly build to ridiculous items that don’t even belong to the English language and the teachers can’t even pronounce. So my first word was “qualify.” Easy peasy! I was eager to show how quickly I could spell this simple word, so I rapidly began “Q-U-A-F…” NOOOO! “I mean Q-U-A-L-” Sorry, no do overs, honey. I was dismissed from the stage in utter humiliation. I ran sobbing into my mom’s lap in front of dozens of my classmates and their parents, feeling even more embarrassment for crying like an idiot in public.
As I think back now, I seem to remember my mother being stunned, not by my inability to spell the word qualify, but by my intense reaction to this failure. I am not embellishing when I say I was inconsolable. Well, until we went to get ice cream afterwards. I perked right up then. Nothing a little Sander’s fudge can’t cure.
Mom and Dad were teachers and I was the firstborn, which is the perfect storm of heightened expectations for over-achievement, but I don’t think they realized I would take the competition to spell more words correctly than my peers quite so seriously. I think my parents were disturbed by how anxious I had become around my academic performance. I developed insomnia. I would call them in the middle of the day and say I was sick if I got a test back and the grade was lower than an A.
Following this spelling bee debacle, I doubled my efforts to win the battle of words, and Pops volunteered to be my Bee coach. That’s right. The man whose THIRD language was English, whose name is written in the halls of history as owning the weirdest accent of all time, was going to train me in the proper spelling of such words as sarcophagus and feldspar. We spent hours every night (I wish I were joking) sitting in the living room going over lists of words. Dad would dramatically pronounce the word, often enunciating all the wrong syllables, and then look at me over his giant glasses and wait for my response. My personal favorite, which I would request every night for my own entertainment, was ca-TAAARRRRGH. Mainly because he sounded like a phlegmy pirate every time he said it. To this day I can only pronounce catarrh with a Val accent. And I find as many opportunities as I can to work it into a sentence. For instance, “Ugh! All of this mucus in my membranes! It must be due to my lifelong battle with ca-TAARRRRGH,” or “Your voice is so lovely. Better hope you don’t contract ca-TAARRRGH!”
What is my point? I guess it made me recognize the singular pressures faced by the eldest daughter of parents who were both the first in their families to graduate from high school, let alone earn advanced degrees in education. It also explains a good bit about my compulsion for being the best at everything and not “failing” onstage. As I stand in front of classes of unbelievably smart adults week after week, I often find my heart racing…what if I do or say something wrong and they think I’m a dummy?
Then I think about Dad and me in the living room, reading ridiculous words and laughing when we both mess up, and I hear his voice in my head saying, “Jeeezus Chrrrist, ho-ney, don’t worry about that! Just get up there and have fun. Whatha hell do you care what those fools think?”