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I Was a Spelling Bee Washout

From my "Random Slice of Life" file . . . experiences, advice, happenings, and glorious results of a misspent youth.

Some clips & pics from my Spelling Bee career

Some clips & pics from my Spelling Bee career

I Feel Your Pain, Charlie Brown...

In the 1969 animated film "A Boy Named Charlie Brown," the lovable loser at the heart of the "Peanuts" gang finally got a chance to win at something when he became a surprisingly fierce competitor in the National Spelling Bee. "Chuck" breezed through the Bee's preliminary rounds with such ease that it looked like he might actually come out on top for the first time in his life. As you might expect, however, victory was cruelly snatched away from poor Charlie Brown at the very last minute. In the film's climactic scene at the national finals, the field has been whittled down to Charlie Brown and one other kid. When Chuck steps up to the microphone, he cracks under the pressure and ends up tragically, ironically misspelling "beagle" -- the breed of his very own beloved dog Snoopy ("B-E-A-G-E-L")! As Charlie himself might say, "AAAAAUUUUUGHHH!"

I can relate to Charlie Brown's experience, for I also know the pain of being a Spelling Bee Washout. Almost forty years ago, my 8th grade self took a similar shot at greatness, and learned an equally tough lesson about defeat.

"I Before E, Except After C!"

I wasn't a particularly great scholar or athlete when I attended Westbrook Middle School in suburban New Jersey in the early 1980s. I was a quiet, dorky kid who usually had my nose stuck in a comic book. The one thing that I could do very well was spell, due to my addictive reading habits. Family legend has it that I could read on my own when I was just three and a half, and by the time I hit my pre-teen years I was reading just about anything that I could get my hands on. I was especially addicted to comic books but I also voraciously devoured novels, magazines, newspapers, catalogs, junk mail, the backs of cereal boxes, whatever. Unsurprisingly, spelling and English were the two school subjects that I never had a problem with growing up (and if I do say so myself, I'm still a pretty bad-ass speller to this day).

I first got on the Spelling Bee train in sixth grade, which was my first year at Westbrook (1982). I easily won the first "round" of the bee, which was held within my own classroom, and then I was victorious over the winners from all three grade levels (sixth, seventh, and eighth) in the "final" school Bee. That was my ticket to the North Jersey Spelling Bee (sponsored by our local newspaper, The Herald-News), where I would do battle with kids representing schools from across the region. The winner of this contest would go on to the National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. - which was, of course, the big time!! In addition to participating in the national Bee, the potential winner's stay in our nation's capital also included a luncheon and reception at the White House! I have no idea if the President would have even been present at such an event, but at the time the idea that I might actually get to meet the Commander in Chief sounded like the coolest thing EVER to me. I no longer recall how many rounds I made it through in that first contest, but I still remember the unfamiliar word which stopped me cold and eliminated me from the competition - "nacelle," which I later learned was part of an aircraft. I went home with a cheap trophy and resolved to do better next year.

I was as good as my word, and came back in 1983 as a seventh grader, representing Westbrook in the North Jersey Spelling Bee for a second time. Once again, I made it through a few rounds but was eliminated when I misspelled the dreaded "rhinoceros" (I think I spelled it with an "-ous" at the end). I must have placed higher than I did the previous year, because in addition to another trophy I also took home a huge hardcover dictionary from Merriam-Webster. Next year would be my final year in junior high, and I knew that it would be my last shot at taking a trip to the Big Spelling Show.

Newspaper pic of 13-year-old me (center) with some of my competition. You'd think I could've looked a little happier, being surrounded by all those girls.

Newspaper pic of 13-year-old me (center) with some of my competition. You'd think I could've looked a little happier, being surrounded by all those girls.

It's Go Time!

I was two months shy of my fourteenth birthday when I made the Spelling Bee rounds for the third and final time in 1984. I cruised through the preliminary contests within my own school, which caused something of a minor sensation. Apparently there had been back-to-back winners in the past, but no Westbrook speller had ever scored a hat-trick and represented the school in the regional Bee three years in a row before. The Principal told the school about my amazing achievement over the loudspeaker during morning announcements, I was featured in the school newspaper, and I received congratulatory letters from the Mayor and several other local dignitaries. Kids started calling me "Spelling Bee Man" or jokingly asking me to spell "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" or "antidisestablishmentarianism." I was a rock star -- or at least, as close as I would ever get to being one - for a couple of weeks. For a kid who was used to being belittled or ignored by my peers, it was a pretty neat feeling.

As my parents drove me to the high school auditorium that would serve as the field of battle for the 1984 North Jersey Spelling Bee, I was focused like a laser on my ultimate goal. I was GOING to Washington D.C., dammit. I had my eyes on the prize and I was ready to crush, kill, and destroy my opposition. My overconfidence would become my undoing.

The author at 13, stepping up to the mic at the Spelling Bee. Hair by Weed Whacker, shirt by Krusty's Rodeo Clown Outlet.

The author at 13, stepping up to the mic at the Spelling Bee. Hair by Weed Whacker, shirt by Krusty's Rodeo Clown Outlet.

Round and Round...

I can't say I remember many details of the 1984 Bee in particular - after all these years, the memories have begun to blur together - but I do remember the feeling of amazement as the field of competitors grew smaller with each passing round... and I was still up there on stage. I was probably thinking to myself, "There's only a few of us left. I'm actually DOING it. I'm almost there. Holy crap! Holy crap! Holy crap!"

Soon there were less than a half dozen kids left in the competition ... and I was one of them. I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. Washington D.C., here I come!!

I no longer remember how many words I'd spelled correctly in order to get to this point in the contest, but I do recall that as usual, they had started out fairly simple and gotten progressively harder as the competition went on. Imagine my surprise, then, when I stepped up to the microphone and the moderator told me that my next word would be:

"Succotash."

A wave of relief washed over me and I thought to myself, "Succotash? That's it? You gotta be kidding. Ooookay, no problem." I licked my lips, took a deep breath....

...and then my tongue betrayed me as I inexplicably blurted out "C...." to start the word.

As soon as that "C" left my mouth, I cringed as if I'd been shot. I could hear a collective "awwwww..." gasp of pity from the audience. I collected myself, started over and spelled the word correctly, but even as I did so I knew it was an empty gesture. That errant "C" had doomed me. I had started with the wrong letter. I was finished -- undone by a simple slip of the tongue.

I immediately swore that I would never eat succotash again.

I finished in fifth place in that 1984 contest - my highest ranking ever, but it wasn't good enough to get me to the Big Show. Needless to say, I was not a happy camper as I left the stage, collected my parents from the darkened auditorium, and fought back tears on the long ride home.

"What happened? F***ing SUCCOTASH?

You had it locked up. You were gonna go to Washington.

You were gonna visit the White House! You were gonna meet Ronald Reagan!

You coulda been a CONTENDER!"

My fifth place finish earned me an attractive plaque with my name on it, which I still have to this day. When I returned to school that Monday, word of my Bee performance got around quickly, and soon I was yesterday's news. Nobody called me "Spelling Bee Man" anymore. I was no longer a rock star. In the immortal words of Charlie Brown..."RATS!"

Looking Back...

My brief spin atop the Spelling Bee hit parade proved to be the high point of my otherwise unremarkable junior high career. Eventually my trophies, newspaper clippings, program booklets and other memorabilia were boxed up and socked away in the closet, and my Bee accomplishments became little more than a barely-remembered footnote to my early adolescence.

When I graduated from college in the early 1990s and began job hunting, my mother asked if I'd mentioned my Spelling Bee experience on my resume. I responded, "Mom, I was thirteen years old! Nobody will care!" but strangely enough, even without ever mentioning the connection, I ended up working for the company that publishes the Herald-News - the newspaper which sponsored the North Jersey Spelling Bee.

One thing hasn't changed in all this time. Nearly 40 years after my crushing defeat, I still refuse to eat succotash.

© 2014 Keith Abt

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