Wake up campers, rise and shine, it’s Spelling Bee Day!

I’ve used one of my precious vacation days so that I can attend a regional competition for my two daughters. Both of them were selected from their respective grades to represent their private school as quasi-professional spellers. We are all up early today, lunches are packed, spellers are in the process of brushing hair and teeth. By 7:30am, four of us are out the door and on our way to the distant city of Johnstown, Pennsylvania.

We stop at the gas station for fuel, free air for the tires, and cheap coffee (see previous story about the community 48-hour boil advisory). Interstate travel, huge cargo trucks barreling down the highway, and I realize the beauty of having an E-ZPass on my windshield as I casually coast through each tollbooth.

The cross-county trek takes us nearly two hours, and we locate the tiny-but-quaint school in the middle of nowhere’s America. We arrive in time for the free breakfast-like snacks of muffins, coffee, and juice. The cafeteria is packed with miniature representatives, from all across Pennsylvania, determined to be the best speller in this portion of the Keystone State.

Friends pair with other friends, teachers with kids, parents with children—within the center of each huddle you can hear the pattern of Say-Spell-Say. It is a pattern that I would become very familiar with, over the course of the day.

Placed into practice, it audibly renders as such: petrichor, p-e-t-r-i-c-h-o-r, petrichor. Incidentally, if you don’t know the definition of this word, you should look it up; petrichor is one of the most lovely words in our English dictionary.

After a two-hour drive, at this early hour of the morning, I’m seeking the free coffee, which consists of exactly one option of Donut Shop blend.

Good enough, g-o-o-d-e-n-o-u-g-h, good enough.

Opening ceremony, loads of instructions, and lots of rules. My wife pairs with my oldest daughter, and gathers with the rest of seventh grade competitors and corresponding spectators. I pair with my youngest daughter, following the gaggle to a lower classroom dedicated to sixth grade competitors.

I really like grammar. And spelling. I was a spelling-bee kid. I’m hard-core about grammar ~ Emma Stone

There are sixteen sixth graders, each dressed in their Sunday-best dress or pressed white shirt. I am imagining that spelling words are overflowing each competitor’s brain, oozing from ears, puddling under the numbered seats. If that were me, I’d be a mental wreck right about now. From the audience of parents, and oddly uncomfortable folding chairs, I’m nervous for each kid. I drown myself in a swig from my styrofoam encased Donut Shop brew.

The Head Spelling Bee Honcho, or whatever the official title for the position may be, says the first word, followed by a corresponding sentence, punctuated by a repetition of the word again. Her silent smile reads as Your Turn Now.

Competitor One is standing at the microphone, I’m certain that his knees are clanking together, and he follows the pattern: say, spell, say. The board of judges review his answer and respond: I’m so sorry, that spelling is incorrect. And just like that, one of sixteen is gone, and my daughter now has a one in fifteen chance of securing the title of champion in her grade level.

My daughter’s first turn arrives and she’s presented with her vocabulary challenge. Say, spell, say again. She safely moves on to Round Two. The collateral damage of Round One is staggering. Six sorrowful souls and seats are parked on the bank of chairs that are reserved for the Misspellers of Misfortune—six of sixteen, out on their first word. Amazing.

Ten competitors continue, each presenting their words with precision. Those that add an extra vowel or consonant are voted off of Spelling Island. Finally, the competition is down to two master spellers: Mikey, and my daughter. They take turns, spell words that I’ve never uttered in my life, each reciprocating their intelligence over numerous rounds of sudden death. Mikey issues a flawless, perfect spelling of k-a-m-i-k-a-z-e. The crowd awaits the next challenge: i-n-a-u-d-i-b-l-e, as my daughter stands at the microphone, retrieving each character from the file cabinet of her mind. Each syllable etched into solid granite, as spoken. And just like that, an extra letter slips into the word, game over, fade to black, roll credits.

I congratulate her as she walks back to my folding chair. Second place in all of sixth grade isn’t too shabby. She did her very best to defend the motherland of Pittsburgh, PA. Mikey was a fierce competitor, that’s for sure. As one of the top five spellers, she’s included in the final bee, after lunch. Around the room, kids approach parents, each with a similar war story of the one letter that got away, that slipped from their lips, or the one word which crashed and burned in a fiery ball of flames.

For every athlete, it is very important to be able to engage in their favorite thing, give all the best in training, performing in competitions, defending the honor of the motherland ~ Fedor Emelianenko

The truth is that each parent in this room is overflowing with joy and pride in their child, and the academic strides that they personally took, just to be a competitor today. Sometimes it’s not always about winning, but simply competing, and that’s what I try to impose on my children. There is value in trying.

Occupants from the Great Seventh Grade Spell to the Death have now arrived, filling the cafeteria with more war stories, tales of academic honor. My oldest daughter secured third place in her grade level, before being tackled and wrestled to the ground by c-a-r-t-i-l-a-g-i-n-o-u-s. It looks like both girls will be staying for the after-lunch vocabulary smack-down.

Turkey sandwich, fruit suspended in sugar water and plastic cup, miscellaneous left-over Halloween candy, bottled water. I eat half my red apple; I wish to be healthy. I steal some more of the tiny muffins from the what-used-to-be-breakfast-table.

New word circles form, huddles of spontaneous academia. Friends eliminated from the morning bee, rally with their friends who are moving on to part two of fun, quizzing each other. Say, spell, say. I survey the countertops for more coffee, but the machine has been removed, cleaned, and stashed away for another day.


Opening ceremony, loads of instructions, and lots of rules. Déjà vu.

The final bee is comprised of fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth grade students. The Top Five will be invited to participate in the Super-duper Spell-a-thon in February, in mid-Pennsylvania. The order of competitors has been randomized, as well as the procession of spelling words. All are challenging, some are comprised of 100% stupid ridiculousness. I pencil a note for myself: “pure fiction…that wasn’t a real word…Google when I get home.” To say that this contest of intellect is difficult, would be an insult to the word difficult. Spelling bees are not hard or difficult, they are a grandiose and formidable challenge—a mental Mount Everest, to be certain.

Within short order, both of my girls are eliminated from the contest. My oldest succumbs to the pressure of a-p-e-x, even though she should have known this simpler word. My youngest caves into the complexity of e-g-o-t-i-s-t-i-c-a-l. Our tenure in Spell to the Death has ended, but we still need to watch the remainder of the bee. Two boys are spelling words that register very high on my Vocabulary Insanity Chart. Back and forth, neither conceding to the other.

With a brief flashback to the pivotal scene in Karate Kid (1984), I yell at the top of my lungs, from the aluminum bleachers: “Finish him, already!” and “Get him a body bag! Yeah!”, at least in my mind I did. Wouldn’t that have been awesome? Maybe when Hollywood makes a movie of my life, we can rewrite today’s narrative as such, specifically for the silver screen.

Finally, one of the kids drops the ball. An extra vowel? Who knows, who cares, beyond his parents. I was ready to go thirty minutes ago; Papa needs coffee.

High-fives and photos for everyone, all around.

Conversations of post-spelling-bee ice cream collect and pile in the school foyer by the front door, although no one can decide, as we have all arrived from different routes on the map.

My daughter and her best friend want to go somewhere—just us two families—on the way home. A Starbucks is identified as close, country-close being seventeen miles away, and the GPS is set for the sun. Yes, I am aware that Starbucks doesn’t sell ice cream, but apparently Vanilla Lattes are a suitable substitute.

As we barrel down backroads of southwestern PA, I see dark brown signs that beckon me from the highway: Flight 93 National Memorial. Crap, that’s on my bucket list for the year, but there’s nothing that I can do to stop the Best Friends Enjoy Ice Cream/Vanilla Lattes After Spelling Bee Convention, nothing at all. I mentally wave at the exit road for the national memorial. At least there will be Starbucks.

Trees, cows, cornfields, and finally civilization. I’m piloting the vehicle which contains all three spelling bee girls. Ahead of me, I follow the other parent’s vehicle, my wife rides as the passenger. I’m sure both are enjoying some quiet, grown-up time, sans children, while I shuttle giggling, YouTube-watching teenagers down the highway.

Cacophony, c-a-c-o-p-h-o-n-y, cacophony.

Starbucks is still one mile further down the road on the right, but we all have our left turn signals on. No, no, no, no, no! McDonalds, to the left. Dreams of Starbucks are smashed by the towering, ever-present Golden Arches—ice cream, for all, after all.

Cars are parked, orders are placed for french fries (not ice cream, mind you), and I’m the only one that orders something from the cold menu. I enjoy my hot fudge sundae with smashed peanuts; even I have coffee principles to uphold.

Principles, p-r-i-n-c-i-p-l-e-s, principles.