Spelling Bees Are Quite Stupid and Should Be Banned

Lessons from my 6th-grade spelling bee nightmare.

Photo by the blowup on Unsplash

There I was, sitting on stage at the Westmoreland Mall Spelling Bee, ready to compete in the spelling bee that included the 100 best spellers from a variety of schools in our area. The competitors included students ranging in age from the 6th to the 8th grade. Only three students from my middle school were selected for the competition, and I was one of them. Since I was only a 6th-grader and one of the youngest spellers, I was nervous about the challenge of competing against older kids. I was also handpicked by my 6th-grade Spanish teacher, Ms. Hutchinson, which added another layer of pressure.

It was weird at the time to be picked by her because I always tried to avoid her in class and didn’t like her. It makes sense now because she ran an interior design business as a side hustle before those were a thing, and I remember accompanying my mom to visit her house when I was much younger. My mom would buy endless amounts of home decor knick-knacks from her. I had no doubt my mom was one of her most profitable customers, and perhaps my selection to compete in the spelling bee may have been a reciprocal favor. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn if Ms. Hutchison was playing the political parent game to boost her side hustle business at my expense.

After all, teachers don’t earn a ton of money.

Ms. Hutchison wasn’t one of those caring, motivating, happy teachers. She was a mean old lady who scared me. She scared everyone. She often yelled and didn’t take shit from any of the students. She literally made a kid name Tim Erhman piss his pants in class one day.

Tim raised his hand to request to use the bathroom, but she gestured for him to put his hand down. He was a chubby, nerdy, quiet kid so he obliged without a fight. About five minutes later, Tim raised his hand again only to be shot down by the mean old Ms. Hutchinson. Accepting defeat, he remained seated at his desk and pissed his pants.

The bell rang and the class bully, Justin, noticed the pee-stain and started pointing and laughing at Tim’s soaked pants. The noise got the attention of everyone else in the class who joined in with the laughter. It was the most humiliating thing my 12-year-old eyes had ever seen someone go through. I felt bad for Tim, but I never understood why he never just got out of his seat and ran to the bathroom. His lack of judgment came with ultimate punishment. For the rest of his school days from grades 6 to 12, Justin branded him with the nickname “Pee Wee Ehrman.”

As I sat in my chair on stage waiting for the spelling bee to begin, I was nervous and excited. The majority of the contestants were bigger and older than me. It was intimidating. I had never participated in a spelling bee in front of this many people before.

Both of my parents were in the audience. My dad played sports his entire life and taught me the importance of being a fierce competitor. He taught me there were winners and losers, and that I should always try my best to win. Participation trophies did not exist back then, but even if they did, I don’t think he would have been okay with them. I felt the weight to perform well and make him proud. I always wanted to be the best son between me and my two brothers. I thought success was a way to ensure that.

Even at the age of 12, I didn’t get along with my mom. I didn’t fully understand why at the time, but that made it even more important for me to receive the love and admiration of my dad. He was the parent who was kind to me, and I wanted to make him happy. Ironically, he never put added pressure on me. It was something I put on myself.

I thought love was conditional and something that needed to be earned. My mom would often say to me and my brothers “If you loved me, you would do,” blank. It was natural for me to take the same conditionality into winning competitions. Winning meant I would earn the love and acceptance I wanted from my parents. My mom’s connection to Ms. Hutchison also added more pressure to bring home the trophy or at least place high enough to justify her selecting me for the competition.

I was in the middle of the order (speller #54) as the first round began. The words selected for the first round usually were easier words to build each speller’s confidence, and then the difficulty ramped up in subsequent rounds. I was eager to get the first word over with. I thought after I got through it, I‘d be able to settle in and relax more as the competition progressed.

When it was each contestant’s turn, they had to stand up and face the front of the stage and judge while everyone else sat in their seats. A microphone was passed from one speller to the next instead of a mic stand being placed in a specific area. By the time the mic was passed to me as speller #54, no contestant had been eliminated. The words were too easy. I pictured my dad in the crowd, beaming with pride after I effortlessly propelled into the 2nd round. His younger, intelligent son was going toe-to-toe with these older spelling giants.

My palms were sweaty and my heart started to beat faster as #53 handed me the mic. The shaky spotlight finally settled, and all eyes were on me. This was it — my turn. My chance to show everyone how proud a son could make his dad.

“Speller #54, your word is QUITE,” the judge said.

A surge of confidence and relief flowed through me. Was this really my first word? Who did he think I was? A 2nd-grader? I thought.

With a subtle, confident smirk, I quickly blurted out the spelling of the word back to him.

“Quite — Q, U, I, E, T, — Quite.”

“I’m sorry that’s incorrect. Please take your seat,” the judge said.

And just like that. It was over.

Oh my God! What did I just do? I thought as I sat down dumbfounded.

I reversed the “E” and “T” and spelled QUIET which is exactly what I had to be for the remainder of the competition. I sat down with my face covered in humiliation. Is this what Tim felt like in class? Was the entire crowd secretly laughing at how dumb I was? Not only was I the first one out of the competition, but I misspelled the easiest word they could’ve given me. I looked towards the crowd to find my parents and fought back tears as I lowered my head in shame and passed the mic to speller #55.

The worst part about being eliminated first was I had to sit on stage for the entire competition until it was over. Only one kid was going to leave as the first one eliminated and that person was me. That person was my dad’s stupid son.

I sat on stage in shambles for the next three hours. It was the longest three hours of my life. Time stopped. I sat there in silence and replayed what had transpired over and over. The rest of the spelling bee was a blur. I can’t recall another word used throughout the rest of the competition or who won. I didn’t care. I wanted out escape out of there as soon as humanly possible.

So many thoughts raced through my mind. What I was going to say to my dad? How could my parents be proud of me? How was I going to explain this to Ms. Hutchison? She made another kid piss his pants for far less than what I just did.

After three long hours, the competition ended, a champion was crowned, and I headed back to my parent’s car with them. I had never felt more humiliation and embarrassment in my entire life. I felt bad for my dad. He had to leave with the dumb kid who was eliminated not only first but also in the first round.

As we entered the car, the emotion of simmering on my defeat for three hours finally took its toll on me, and I broke down in tears. I kept repeating that I was sorry. As a 12-year-old, this was one of the most significant moments of my life that I never thought I would recover from.

My dad turned around in the car and said, “Son, it’s okay. You did your best, and we’re proud of you.”

“My best? I missed the easiest word they could’ve asked me,” I said choked up and wiping away the tears.

“You rushed the spelling and made a mistake. I know you know how to spell quite. It’s okay. Everyone makes mistakes,” he said reassuring me that he wasn’t mad.

I’m lucky to have a great dad. He took one of the most traumatizing moments in my life and was there to support me through it. It didn’t make the embarrassment go away or the shame I felt, but it was the comfort I needed to hear. I learned a valuable lesson from him that day. His love for me was unconditional. I didn’t need to prove anything or earn it from him. I needed to learn that. I had to give my mom credit too. We always had a rocky relationship, but she supported me through that failure as well.

As for Ms. Hutchinson, she didn’t make me pee my pants like poor Tim. She was empathic to what happened, and it changed my perception of her from the mean old lady I thought she was.

My 6th-grade spelling bee debacle left “quite” an indelible mark on my life. I think the failure brought me closer to my dad and even made Ms. Hutchinson more human.

Not going to lie, as I got older, anytime I saw the Scripps National Spelling Bee on ESPN, I made sure to change the channel.

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this, here’s another funny story from my college days that you may like:

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