In the fifth grade I represented my classroom in Anthony Elementary’s all-school spelling bee. It was a tense couple of weeks leading up to the contest. It started out with the whole class lining up in groups of five, our teacher Mrs. Coughran, very prideful in her running of a mock spelling bee, tried her best to pit us against others who were at our own spelling level. I was one of the last kids picked to go up, and I soared through my words, until I ultimately had to face-off against my then boyfriend, Todd. Todd was a sweet kid, with a giant forehead, and Jason Priestly hair. I wish I could remember more about him. I do know we were married. We had a fall playground wedding adorned with dandelion chain necklaces, and our reception involved my friends following us around with a Wilson Phillips tape playing in a little boombox. “I know there’s pain. Why do you lock yourself up in these chains? These chains.” It was all very romantic.
As Todd and I stood at the center of the brightly colored classroom, we found ourselves in a sudden death match. We had tied too many times, so Mrs. Coughran told us the first one to spell the next word would win. The word was “Catastrophe”. It was Todd’s chance first. His voice got really low and cracked a little as he spelled, “C-a-t-a-s-s-t-r-o-p-h-e, catastrophe.” Mrs. Coughran winced. He’d spelled it like it sounded, cat ass and all. I was sad for him, but suddenly exhilarated. “Missy, if you can spell the word you get to go to the school spelling bee.” You bet your cat ass I spelled it correctly, then the whole class cheered, Todd and I shook hands, and Mrs. Coughran gave me a big congratulatory hug. The next day Todd broke up with me. He couldn’t deal with my success. I was shocked and very sad, but I pressed on.
Three weeks later I was sitting in a cold, plastic chair, my hair pulled so tight back that it was giving me a headache. “You have to keep your hair out of your face,” my mom said earlier that morning, as she was pulling the comb through my long locks and holding it tight in a pony tail behind my head. I watched in the bathroom mirror as my eyes involuntarily moved up with my stretching skin. “Ow,” I’d protest occasionally. “Hush!” She’d yell. “It has to be tight.” Now here I was, sitting behind a closed curtain on the stage, listening as the whole school filled into the seats on the gym floor, which also doubled as our auditorium and our lunchroom.
Some of the younger kids were messing around. Kicking each other and spelling bad words. “Shit. S-h-i-t” one of the third graders said, and everyone laughed. I rolled my eyes. I had to get focused. I was thinking of words that had been on my practice lists. Trouble, captain, antique. Harder, Missy, harder. Obnoxious. Cologne. Literature. I knew I had to win. If nothing else so Todd would take me back. Who wouldn’t want a famous spelling bee champion for a wife?
Our librarian, Mrs. Simmons, opened the curtain for a peek. She asked if we were ready. She made eye contact with me. I smiled a nervous smile. I was ready, I had practiced for weeks now. She smiled and walked out onto the stage to introduce the spelling bee. One kid whispered to another that she might be sick. “Don’t vomit on me,” replied her supportive friend. I smiled to myself. Kids.
Then the curtains opened, and I looked over the sea of eager faces. I saw Mrs. Coughran, I saw my mom, I saw my friends and Todd, and the principal, Mr. Parks. I saw the lunch ladies, the secretary, I saw my third-grade teacher, Mrs. Nixon, with her hair all the way up to God and her familiar back, arched from childhood scoliosis, bumping up against the hard wall. I saw her smile brightly at us, so excited to cheer her kiddos on. Then I vomited in a little my mouth, swallowed it down, and tried not to cry.
The first round went by in a blur. It was by grade level, so I was one of the last kids to go up and my first word was “e-g-g, egg”. At first I was confused as to why I had such an easy word, but then I noticed some of the first graders had been knocked out in that first round. They were all granted a gentle applause as they were forced to do a walk of shame, down the stairs, through the stage door to join the rest of their dumb, non-spelling classmates. It was dreadful to watch. My stomach churned.
The second round amped up fast. My word was “c-h-o-c-o-l-a-t-e, chocolate”. Used in a sentence as, “Mrs. Nixon loves when her kids bring her chocolate candy bars.” I smiled, remembering Mrs. Nixon’s penchant for Milky Ways and spelled the word correctly. I quickly turned around to walk back to my seat without a nod of approval from the judges. I couldn’t make eye contact with anyone at that point. My nerves were shot.
More kids were knocked out. This time third graders, and one fifth grade girl from another class. I started to feel sweat pooling at the dip in my back. I wondered if it were possible to sweat so much that I would stick to the chair. My mind drifted off then. Unraveling at a unnerving pace. What if, when I was called up next, my chair stuck to my butt when I stood up, then dropped down making a loud noise? What if, when I stood up the kid next to me looked at my chair and there were sweat marks shaped like my butt in the seat? What if I tripped? What if I sneezed into the microphone?
Three more kids fell out of the spelling God’s favor.
I walked up to the microphone very slowly. I had memorized where the cord was on the wooden floor, so I stepped carefully over it. I moved my hands behind my back and looked down at the floor.
“Ability. You have the ability to spell this word.”
I didn’t look up. “Ability. A-b-i-l-t-y. Ability.” I turned to walk back to my chair.
“Oh, I’m sorry Melissa. That is incorrect.”
I froze. My chin hit the floor.
Mrs. Coughran rushed to the side of the stage to usher me off. I blindly followed her, down the stage stairs, through the door, her soft, manicured hands guiding me quietly back to a seat with my dumb, non-spelling classmates. I sank into my chair, my eyes on the linoleum lunchroom floor. My face burned hot with e-m-b-a-r-r-a-s-s-m-e-n-t. Ms. Coughran lingered over me. Her hands occasionally touching my shoulders in an attempt to comfort me. But it was too late. I was a spelling bee loser. I had let her down. I had let the class down. Todd would have won. He would have went all the way. I didn’t deserve Todd. I was never the same after that day.
Years later I still feel that particular pang of embarrassment sometimes. When I say the wrong thing to the right person. When I think I am helping, but I am just making it worse. When I share any part of myself. I want to look down at my sweaty hands and never look back up.
Today I realized that I’ve let that memory linger for too long now. That memory has stopped me from doing things I want to do. It has prevented me from taking that first step to a new goal. It has prevented me from believing in myself. In taking myself seriously. It has prevented me from letting others take me seriously. I guess I think writing it out now will help in some way. Maybe I will get my ability back. My confidence back.
Hopefully I will.
As for Todd, well, I won’t ever get him back. But that’s okay. I don’t need him anymore. Or his cat ass.