In 2nd grade, my stern but fair and excellent teacher, Mrs. Zen, noticed that I had a certain predilection for spelling. I don’t remember taking a single spelling test back then, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she noticed that I was bored with the tests I was taking. And even the summer before I began 2nd grade, I had wowed my friends with my feat of being able to spell supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, often at breakneck speed. So my parents took notice.

Unfortunately, in my school and district, participation in the spelling bee was limited only to 4th graders and above, so 3rd grade came and went without any spelling action. However, my parents were apparently excited to get me started somehow. And early in the fall of 1984, I walked into a local shopping mall and entered a random spelling bee, just for the fun of it.

It was a rather makeshift affair…the tall, awkward pronouncer wearing a rakishly-tied necktie held the list of words in a few stapled pages in his hand. He hunched over every time he spoke into the same microphone we smaller spellers sometimes had to stand on tiptoes to reach. It also wasn’t the most professionally planned-out bee. Some of us noticed that one of the words given was quite prominently displayed as part of a store name nearby. Also, the pronouncer seemed uncertain about whether he should eliminate spellers for failing to note whether a word should be capitalized, and tried to eliminate two spellers – myself included – for committing this sin. (My word was February, and the judge on hand decided it wasn’t an issue.)

Other than those random moments, I don’t remember too much else about that bee other than the moment that mattered: the moment I spelled population and took the title of winner of my first-ever spelling bee. The thrill of victory was like nothing I had ever felt before, an exhilaration that gripped me and led me into the world of spelling bees. When interviewed for my school newsletter for my victory, my vocabulary at the time failed me: “I just felt so great I couldn’t believe it,” was all I could muster. But I did know one thing: I wanted to feel that great again, and was willing to work for it.

Later that year, I earned third place in my school spelling bee, and with it, a trip to the district spelling bee to compete against students in junior high. For a lowly 4th grader, this was a bit frightening…what was I doing in such a high-level environment as this? But when the day came, I was as well-prepared as I could be. I hadn’t come close to learning the list of words I should have, but that list was about 3,000 words long, and I had the first two-thirds down pretty well. It was only the hardest third that I hadn’t quite felt able to conquer. But my written test score was high enough to qualify me for the oral rounds that day. Again: me, a lowly 4th grader, competing against spellers much older than me…was this really where I belonged?

Apparently, it was. As spellers began falling from progressively harder and harder words, I stayed in the competition. And in my favorite moment of the whole day, I got a word that my mom and I had laughed about while studying: curliewurly. I laughed about it again, spelled it clearly and confidently, then sat down, happy to have survived another round.

No other 4th grader made the oral rounds. I’m not sure even a 5th grader had. But for a 4th grader to get so far as 3rd place at the district bee while spellers much older than me were knocked out had been almost unheard of before. And I had managed it while staying calm, confident in my abilities, and even laughing in the face of adversity at one point. I don’t even remember what word I missed, because I was just giddy about my performance. My biggest rewards were a beautiful trophy made of marble and faux rose quartz, a Peanut Buster Parfait on my way back to school after the bee, and an announcement made by my principal over the intercom system, during which my classmates cheered my victory in a yell that could be heard practically through the whole school. And in the local newspaper later that week, the bee was written up, as a front page story, and I was rewarded with the title of “Mr. Congeniality” because of my good spirits throughout the bee.

I was then headed for the Colorado-Wyoming Regional Spelling Bee, and I didn’t harbor any delusions about that one: it was going to be brutally difficult, and I knew I would probably not do too well. (Spoiler alert: in the 100-question written test, I missed 75 words, and came nowhere near making it to the oral rounds.) But even before my first bee at that shopping mall that year, I had no idea how far I could go. Making it to the state bee – the top 250 spellers in the state – was accomplishment enough, and far further than I had ever expected.