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It's Bee Season!

Photograph by Getty Images

We live in Minnesota, where all children are above average, but even so we never expected to have a child so above average that he would compete in the National Spelling Bee.

Our son was an early and voracious reader so we weren’t that surprised when he won his fifth grade class bee. In fact, we pretty much expected it. But over the next few months we were increasingly surprised as he went on to win the school, city and district bees.

He had never been involved in competitive sports before, so this was the first time we were thrust into the role of “stage” parents ... a role I had never seen myself falling into. After all, I had my own career and did not need to be validated by my child’s accomplishments.

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That illusion lasted only until he received a booklet called Paideia, which contained a list of words that would be included in the state bee. He already knew most of them, but some were so obscure there was no chance he could ever spell them without committing them to memory. I knew that he could do that fairly easily, if he just spent some time studying them. He had a keen interest in winning the state bee, so I volunteered to be his coach. It turned out, however, that he was only mildly interested in studying the words; and by mildly I mean hardly at all.

After a few attempts at time-honored methods of coaching (cajoling, nagging, outright bribery), I gave up on the endeavor, reminding myself that it was his life, and victory, not mine.

Despite his minimal preparation, we found, once again, that he was a much better speller than average, when he placed third at the state bee. It was clear he could be a real contender to compete at the National Spelling Bee in Washington the next year!

Sixth grade bee season began and our hopes were high. Then tragedy (I use the word loosely—at least in hindsight) struck. During his class bee while spelling an easy word he repeated some letters without thinking and was immediately eliminated.

I might remark, “Is that a nene I see flying overhead?”

He had one more chance in 7th grade. This time he willingly signed up for my coaching … at least at the beginning. We paid several visits to our local library to look up all the hard words in Paideia and made flashcards.

We began sprinkling them into our daily conversations. For instance, I might remark, “Is that a nene I see flying overhead?” This was highly unlikely since the nene is a goose indigenous to Hawaii. And by the way, it’s pronounced "nay-nay," in case you see ever end up in a spelling bee, or go to Hawaii and want to sound like a native.

This time the coaching was more successful. The secret to our successful collaboration was that I became the stage mother I refused to be two years before. Studying went from optional to mandatory. Yes, it was his life and his victory, but no, I would not let him go to that bee without learning those words. I knew this would ensure his greatest chance of success, and I knew he would thank me in retrospect if he won.

He learned all those damned words. He was called on to spell some of them in the final rounds of the state bee. We still have the picture from our local newspaper of the huge grin on his face when he completed spelling the word “kinkajou” correctly and won the state bee.

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Our whole family went to Washington for the National Spelling Bee. I didn’t make him study at all for that one, as there was no chance at winning against competitors who were putting hours into memorizing dictionaries, but he made it to the second round anyway, which he was more than satisfied with. Our younger daughter still remembers the wonderful treats the losers and their families were given in the “comfort room” after he was eliminated. Paula and I still get excited when May comes along and it’s time for the National Spelling Bee. We watch and compare notes.

Our son is now 30 and has moved on from that victory. Luckily so, as there are very few careers or endorsement opportunities for champion spellers in our society. A few years ago my husband and I visited Hawaii for the first time. We were excited to come across a sign that said “Nene Crossing” followed by several real ones walking by. We eagerly snapped a shot of one and sent it to our son. He responded, in a tolerant tone, “Interesting.”

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