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Confessions of a Spelling Bee Queen Bee

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It’s that time of year again. Time for the most awkward and unpopular of the lower social tiers of junior high to shine: it’s time for the Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee.

How I remembered this is inconsequential. (I was paying patronage the strip club with my friends and realized it was on ESPN. Define irony.) But seeing the future Bill Gateses of the world duel it out for the right to be called “Nation’s Top Loser” reminded me of my own horrible, awkward, yet wonderful experiences as my school's top speller.

I was awkward at best through my junior high years. I was made fun of mercilessly, called “Stinky Tuna” because I sat with my legs open (I was a tomboy, lay off) and wore baggy clothes to hide the fact that I had boobs because when I wore things that showed them off I was accused of stuffing my bra. The only time I ever felt like I fitted in was when those aluminum chairs were lined up, the microphone on the stand was hot, and I could out-spell even Hicksville Middle School’s brightest.

I was the Spelling Bee girl. It was my niche. It’s what I did.

I remember my first taste of spelling bee victory. Fifth grade. I beat out Tyler Turnbull, the teacher’s son, with the word “soothsayer.” He cried. I gloated. And I got a cool trophy that immediately made me the object of mockery on the bus ride home. But hey, the bus driver said I did a good job and that’s all that mattered.

Subsequent bees were inconsequential. I spelled. I won. I gloated. I was reminded I didn’t have boobs and wasn’t pretty and didn’t wear clothes from American Eagle. Time passed and I continued to be the most mocked female in the class, but on spelling bee day, God have mercy on all of them. I wasn’t invited to your birthday party. I was shunned from your sleepover. You asked me to be your girlfriend just so I would accept and you and your friends could laugh at me. But dammit. I was going to out-spell all those little shits.

And I did.

Pretty kids don’t win the spelling bee. The quarterback who will eventually get a bigger scholarship than you goes out in the first round. The weird stinky kids are usually in the top 10, but rarely win. The spelling bee isn’t made for the winners of the world like those who joined a sorority or became a CEO. (Okay, I became a sorority girl but that was a completely different story.)

The spelling bee is awkward. The spelling bee is braces, bad acne, scoliosis and coke-bottle glasses. The spelling bee is the kids who get paper wads thrown at them and get tripped in the hall.

For two or three hours, we were better than them. We were the cool kids, if just for a little bit.

Some of my best friends I maintained through junior high and high school were weird kids I met at the county spelling bees. Kids who were made fun of and tortured like me. If the spelling bee is good for one thing, it’s a place where all those weird kids could be weird together. Then it turned into a complete bloodshed once those stage lights were on. But it was glorious geek blood, and it just made us into an ordained blood order of nerds.

The popular kids had their slumber parties and sports practices. They had their intimidating cliques in the hallway. They had their gaggle of hyenas in the backs of classrooms. But us? We had the spelling bee. It was ours.

And last night, I remembered being one of them. Being as tortured and awkward and misunderstood. And knowing that while on stage, those weirdos and dweebs and nerds felt like they mattered, felt like they had something special that was just theirs.

The other kids had plenty of opportunities in life to feel superior. But for us, the geeks and dweebs and mockeries of junior high, we have the spelling bee.

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About Chelsea Smith

  • Carol Ordonez-Jose

    Interesting comments here, but my question is…are you all sure about your winning dates? For example, Kit Jarrell-are you sure you were the Prentice Middle School champion in 1987/1988? If so, can you tell me the name of the 1987 CESA #9 champion who was from Prentice Elementary School?

    Prentice Middle School did not exist as such in 1987. As a matter of fact, I was the Prentice Elementary School champion in 1987 and CESA#9 District champion. I don’t remember my State placement because it was over 20 years ago.

  • Too young to share name

    What you have described is very true and I admire your style of writing!

    I am an anonymous person who goes to a highly ranked school in New York who didn’t win for the school in 4th, 6th, and 7th grades because of the nearly incomprehensible accents of the speakers in 4th and 6th grades and because no spelling bee was held in 7th grade. By the way, my class is made up of 500 students, about 10 of whom I felt considerable competition with.

    A fellow champion
    Elementary School Winner, 2004
    District Winner, 2004
    Middle School Winner, 2007
    Regional Finalist, 8th place, 2007

  • Funny, I remember feeling the exact same way! I participated in spelling bees from third grade through eighth, winning the county bee for four years in a row so I had several years of being the weird egghead unpopular girl. I wondered if I was the only one who ever rode home on the school bus with those huge tall trophies from county bees and was made fun of by everyone. Thanks for bringing back the repressed memories!

    Winner of Roanoke VA Regional Spelling Bee and participant in the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee, 1988.

  • I feel flattered and dirty all at once.

  • Mike (not me, the one in comment 6):

    Geez, dude, what are you talking about? You can’t even SEE her boobs in that picture.

    Which is perfectly okay, Ms. Snyder. Your boobs are none of our business. (Especially considering you’re younger than my baby sister.)

  • Thank you for this. My yearbook, when given to someone to sign, came back two days later scrawled with all manner of insults, mostly directed at the fact that I was a weird kid (weird being defined as “paying attention in class and getting A’s with no effort.”)

    Every year about this time, I have the same strange sort of nostalgia, and I can never hear the words “capitulate” or “beneficiary” without a secret smile. Those popular kids are all bald and divorced now anyway.

    Your post made me chuckle. Thank you.

    Kit Jarrell
    Spelling Bee Champion
    Prentice Middle School 1987, 1988
    14th at Wisconsin State, 1998
    Current Geek

  • Ha. You only have two spelling titles. Loser.

    Shit, I only have one. Uppity bitch.

  • It’s not an “unfortunate stereotype” when you were the unfortunate stereotype. Then it just becomes your unfortunate prepubescence.

  • duane

    Gratuitous use of hyperbole and the perpetuation of unfortunate stereotypes. Otherwise, well written.

    Duane A. Anonymous
    At the beach during Spelling Bees
    Southern California (a long time ago)
    Thinks memorizing the spelling of obscure words is a waste of time.

  • mike

    I was reminded I didn’t have boobs and wasn’t pretty.

    Well, based on your picture we will have to agree to disagree.

  • Ha. You only have two spelling titles. Loser.

  • I agree with all the above.

    Spelling Bee Champion
    Whiteford Elementary 1994
    Arbor Hills Junior High 1997
    No Longer a Bed-wetter

    (P.S. – “Glorious geek blood” is your phrase to work into conversation for the day)

  • Thank you.

    Chelsea L. Snyder
    Spelling Bee Champion
    Hicksville Elementary School 1995-96
    Hicksville Middle School 1997-1998

  • Amen.

    First Ward Elementary School Spelling Bee Champion

  • Terrific post!