That Time I Didn’t Know A Word During A Spelling Bee


I have a secret.

I didn’t learn Spanish until middle school. I thought it was dumb. Who cares about foreign languages? Who cares about learning? I was too “cool” for it.

I won my fifth grade school spelling bee, and I went to the regional Indiana spelling bee. I made it to the later rounds. Those words were easy, weren’t they? I was above it all.

Then came perhaps the first word anyone in Spanish learns, ever: “amigo.” You see my dilemma: “What the heck doe that mean?” But no, I was too smart for it. Its sounds Greek, sort of like “Alpha” and “Omega” squished together. I don’t need to ask for the language of origin, I’d look stupid. That would be embarrassing. “A-M-E-G-O.” The bell rings. “Incorrect.” My dream is over. I walk quietly off the stage and then cry. Like un bebe.

I now know where arrogance leads: nowhere but the back seat of my mother’s car. A Buick.

But I do have one thing to commend the experience. A lesson. No,—it’s not that I’m fallible, although I learned that too. It’s not that I should never be afraid to ask questions again, nor that I should learn Spanish (although I have) and open myself up to a more nuanced multiculturalism (ditto).

It wasn’t that I should read more, research more, learn more; that I should privilege humility to arrogance and knowledge to ignorance.

It wasn’t even that spelling bees are stupid.

What I learned is something much more powerful: That one should never underestimate or devalue the importance of a F-R-I-E-N-D.

In friendship, alas, is victory.

That is what my failure to spell the word “amigo” correctly in fifth grade taught me. It is advice often quoted, rarely internalized. Rarely felt.

Yes, it was unfortunate that I lost that night. Or so I thought at the time. (Maybe I still do.) But now — thanks to a dose of pride and humiliation, and tears, and a Buick — I feel like I have inherited a fortune.

Since that regional spelling bee in fifth grade, since I learned that eternal truth, I have struggled to live that lesson. Sometimes I listened to it. Sometimes I didn’t (and paid the consequences).

Now I think I’m in the right place. (And, hey, maybe I’m not.) But one thing’s for sure: I have never, ever been the same.

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