S-T-R-E-S-S is how you spell “spelling bee”

Spelling bees are stressful. Period. Well, for me they are. I remember being 13 years old with parents high on anticipation of my potential championship.

I was one of the “country school” kids when I was growing up. We were pretty much sheltered from the rest of the world and had little interaction with the “town school” kids most of the time.

But there was one exception – that infamous day each year when we were unleashed to show our spelling abilities at the county bee in Neligh. All the kids in the county were represented on that day, vying for the coveted title and the opportunity to go to the state competition.

We had spent the dark winter days crouched over the Blue Book, memorizing letter patterns, lists. We drilled endlessly. Regardless of our grade levels, we learned to master the fifth, then the sixth, eventually the seventh, reaching the pinnacle of eighth, and then beyond . . . to the “master’s level” as my teacher called it.

My wonderful Mrs. Elliott — Donna was her first name — was this tough, white-haired woman who had taught country school to most of the farm kids in Antelope County at one time or another. She —yes, she —had made the trip to Lincoln when she was younger. This literal Olympian of spelling was my coach.

She knew all the tricks — she showed me how to break down the words, use their meaning, sound them out. She also taught me to memorize the hundreds of listings from that famous spelling book — that way, she said, I’d never be surprised in the oral round.

Mrs. Elliott wasn’t the only one in my corner of the ring — there also stood my father. Each day, he made me eat celery and eggs, and drink lots of tomato juice. He said these were “brain foods,” and would increase my ability to remember all the thousands of words that had been thrown at me. When all the other kids were made to go to bed, I was “privileged” to be able to sit up with him at the kitchen table for an extra half-hour, as he asked me to spell “extravaganza,” “hernia,” and occasionally for fun, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” Of course, that last word wasn’t in “the book,” but he thought it added some “fun” to our sessions.

Then the spelling spilled over into chores — he’d summon me to the milk barn where he’d ask me words while he milked cows. With the rhythm of the suction in the background, I learned to spell in a style near that of rap music — he said the percussion would help drill the words into my brain.

And then, finally, it was time to show the “town school” kids what I had. The others in my tiny “farm school” made posters of support and sent me off the day before with a pep rally after a round of “Kick the Can.” They told me I could beat them.

They made me feel like there was a possibility I could. Back then, all four grades — fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth — competed against each other. There were no divisions. It was dog eat dog, regardless of your age, and I had been the maid of honor all three years. Yes, in fifth grade, I was the overall runner-up to an eighth grader. The next year, I stood as a sixth grader on a pedestal next to an eighth grader. I was again narrowly edged out by an eighth grader in the seventh.

So it was decided that my final year was going to be my year — the year I had only to compete against kids my own age or younger. I’d already been through the grueling, wet-brow stress of standing in front of Neligh-0akdale, Elgin Public, Elgin St. Boniface, Clearwater Public, Orchard and other country school kids.

This was going to be my year – that was the mantra.

The night before, there was no sleep. Dad was hell bent on making sure we were going to bring home the gold. I took vitamins, skimmed the Blue Book, ate Jello (apparently another good “brain food”). And then, I started to feel sick. My stomach was in knots, fever blisters began to form on my lips, a rash was all over my arms and legs. It’s a good thing I’ve never tried out for the Olympics.

“Be tough,” he said, as my mother scolded him. “You need to get over this and get ready for the morning.”

As I lay in my bunk bed that night, listening to the scores of Mueller kids snoring around me, I worried. What if I didn’t pull it off? I continued to spell words until the break of dawn. Then, it was time to face the gauntlet.

I suited up in my Braxton jeans and yellow pull-over. With the hair up in a ponytail and one last celery stick in my hand, we got into the van and headed to town. It was time.

My dad waved from the barn. The siblings stood at the door. There wasn’t a marching band — but if there would have been, I’d never have heard it. All I heard was my heart beating in my throat and the sound of letter combinations running through my mind.

The morning started off with a bang — the written round. This wasn’t a problem. They started with the easy words and we just kept going. Round after round until only 10 of us remained.

I remember watching the others as they dropped like flies. I wondered why they weren’t upset — apparently they didn’t have the family reputation and legacy on their backs.

As I stood in line with my remaining nine competitors, I checked out the competition. Yes, I knew the strongest. We had been building toward this moment all our lives.

Steve from Elgin Public — his mother was a school teacher who had once been the county champion. He had the background to pull this off.

Lisa from St. Boniface — cute as a bug and smart as a whip.

Word after word, we moved along. We spelled words like Mississippi, stealth, unicameral, intestines and stethoscope. Then came terms like prestigious, catalyst . . . and so on.

Eventually, it was just me, Steve and Lisa. Beads of sweat built up on my forehead. My vision was blurry. All I could see were words — a sea of words and letters and flash cards and the color blue. I felt myself swaying — don’t lock your knees, my father had warned. I tried to bend them periodically.

Then, there were two. Me and Lisa.

The words were getting harder.

The stress was taking its toll on us both.

Then, the moment arrived. She was asked to spell “Armageddon.” Seriously, the word was “Armageddon.”

“I’m sorry, that’s incorrect,” the judge told her and turned to me.

I knew the word . . . I even knew what it meant. If I didn’t get this right, it would be my Armageddon. I spelled it.

“That’s correct,” the judge said as I heard a gasp from the crowd.

I only had one word left to spell — and then I’d be spelling bee champion of Antelope County. I would finally have the ability to carry that trophy into the milk barn and stand forever in spelling bee history.

They gave me my word. I won’t tell you what it was. Never will I speak of it again. Only that there were only five letters and the last letter was “T.”

I looked at the crowd — could I possibly have gotten such an easy word? Yes, this was it.

I began. My mouth carefully spelled out the first four letters and then the earth shifted. The hands of fate slapped me in the face. Maybe it was “during-traumatic stress syndrome” that did it. I heard disaster, with great surprise, as my mouth formed a “D” instead of a “T” for no apparent reason.

“No!” I screamed inside my head.

“Please,” I begged. “I know that it’s ‘T,’ I don’t know why I said ‘D.’ Please, let me start over.”

The judges weren’t to be swayed. I watched in horror as the Lisa easily spelled the word and then in one quick move, took the championship.

I didn’t hyperventilate until I got to the vehicle. My mom bought me an ice cream cone at the Yum Yum Shack, told me I was brilliant and “it wasn’t meant to be.”

My father said he was happy with four second places in my elementary career – he even made up something about if we added them all together they would have equaled two championships.

But he and I both knew our dreams of spelling greatness were over.

That was a million years ago . . . yet on spelling bee day, each year, I’m grateful I don’t have to cover it. When I did cover it for the newspaper, I actually found myself sweaty and nervous for those kids. Today’s kids don’t even have to do the oral rounds at the local level anymore – but I’m still nervous for them.

Just add it to the list of things that are wrong with me.

But, I can proclaim that yes, I can spell the infamous word that took me down.

And I can spell “spelling bee.” It’s S-T-R-E-S-S.


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