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The Curse of Perfect Spelling

05/22/2014 07:23 pm 19:23:33 | Updated Jul 22, 2014
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I tried to ignore the crowd above me as I walked to the podium, my hands trembling fiercely. Although I knew each word the judges gave me, I don't know where I got the courage to force the letters from my mouth. I found my shield in the yellow legal pad next to the microphone, where I could write everything down before speaking. It was comforting to see what the other students had written before me, like a visitor's log for the worst tourist attraction ever.

If I'd known being an excellent speller would turn out to be such a curse, I probably would have hidden it better.

It was clear by the time I was 7 or 8 that I was good at it. Almost freakishly good. I could read well ahead of my grade level and had a knack for remembering what words looked like. At the same time, I was severely shy, with Barbra Streisand levels of stage fright. When my teachers asked me to read aloud or answer questions in class, I was transformed into a terrified, tongue-tied dunce.

When I could write things down, I was completely comfortable, and I aced every one of those 10-word spelling quizzes teachers like to spring on their students. Little did I know they were secretly trying to identify the best candidates for the school spelling bee. Had I realized their plot, I might have flubbed my answers. But I wasn't that savvy, and before I knew it, I was named the best speller in my class, earning me a one-way ticket to the bee.

Like any other competition, preparing for a spelling bee involves training, but instead of stretching and laps around a racetrack, this called for thick booklets of big words most grade schoolers haven't encountered in their brief lives. For hours each day, I stared at rows of brain-scrambling words like "sycophant," "contemporaneous," and "incandescence." These are words adults have trouble spelling when they're looking right at them, let alone a nervous kid whose mouth doesn't work when she's in front of an audience. Even worse, the words are presented with no context. After an hour or so looking at them, unfamiliar terms lose any meaning they might have had. It's the printed equivalent of repeating the word "banana" until you're laughing at how absurd it sounds.

I studied them anyway, hoping something would stick. I wish I'd known then what I learned in martial arts years later, that in fight-or-flight situations -- like, say, trying to spell "mellifluous" aloud in front of 700 people you'll have to face the next day if you fail -- our brains fall back on what's ingrained. I probably should have written each word 100 times instead. Even if it hadn't helped me remember anything, it might have taken my mind off the terror that bathed my internal organs every time I imagined the contest that lay ahead.

The day of the bee, my fellow spellers and I sat anxiously in lines of metal folding chairs on the floor of the school auditorium, which smelled like stale cafeteria food and gym socks. Rows of students, teachers and parents loomed in the bleachers above us as we were summoned, one by one, to meet our etymological fates.

I don't remember what I spelled or how I got through the competition, possibly due to epic amounts of dissociation. Somehow, each of my competitors was excused, until only one other student and I remained. He spelled his next word incorrectly, I spelled mine correctly, and one of the judges declared me the champion. My body flooded with relief, not because I'd won but because it was over.

Or so I thought. Winning the school spelling bee actually meant I and my second-place counterpart went on to the regional competition. It took place in a local shopping mall, where we stood at the podium as patrons hurried past. I was eliminated early and never got that far in a spelling bee again, a fact that still fills me with more gratitude than regret.

Those contests didn't make me more comfortable in front of an audience; if anything, they cemented my desire to avoid public speaking at all costs. I chose a career in writing, in part, to continue that evasion, but it hasn't completely worked. As an author, I've read my work for bookstore audiences and been interviewed on the radio. Each time, I feel like I'm facing an oncoming freight train, but the aftermath is different now. Once the the adrenaline and nausea fade, an unexpected realization takes over: I enjoyed it. My childhood spelling bees, violin recitals and other performances were wholly unpleasant, but I now understand it's possible for public speaking to be dreadful enough to make me physically ill and, at the same time, so fun that I'm giddy by the end. What's more, I've learned that when my abilities land me in the spotlight, it's safe to shine.

The Scripps national spelling bee finals are May 29, 2014.