“How did I get here?” At the point that this picture was being taken, that’s about what I was thinking. Well, that and “I’m tearing up! Are my contacts gonna fall out?” You see, I had just started wearing contacts for the first time about a week before. You never know what might happen.
But yeah…how did I get to the place where I was standing on a stage, holding a trophy and being crowned the top speller in the nation for 1989? You’re asking that too…that’s why you’re here.
The whole story begins at a shopping mall in Englewood, CO, in early September of 1983. My 2nd grade teacher, Mrs. Zen, had mentioned to my parents that I had an unusual aptitude for spelling. She recommended that I compete in a spelling bee for the fun of it. Well, my parents found this spelling bee at a shopping mall, of all places. I enrolled, competed, and won my first spelling bee right there with the word “population.” And the thrill of winning hooked me at that moment.
The following year, my Sprachgefühl (innate sense of language) continued to take me places. As a fourth-grader, I competed in our school district bee, taking third place and knocking down seventh and eighth-graders left and right in the process. But the Colorado-Wyoming Regional Bee was my Waterloo. I negotiated a 100-word written test…and got only 25 words right. Okay, so maybe I wasn’t a champion speller yet.
In fifth grade, the district bee organizers remembered me, and hurled the competition’s most difficult word at me in the first round, hoping to knock me out. Unfortunately, mission accomplished. My career ended right then, fairly painfully.
But then in sixth grade, I transferred to a Catholic school where teachers took spelling very seriously. I thrived under the school’s rigorous spelling program. I won the district bee on a word that was on par with the word that knocked me out the previous year. But the biggest thrill came a few months later, when I won the Colorado-Wyoming bee, and was sent packing to Washington to compete at the National Spelling Bee! The trip to Washington was a blast, and I certainly didn’t mind finishing 41st out of 185 spellers. I was just happy to have made it there.
Despite doubling the time I spent studying, seventh grade brought virtually the same results, aside from a humiliating but still respectable 2nd place finish at the district bee. I made it to Washington again and improved to 39th place, but still was eliminated in the same round as I had been the previous year.
For my final year, I transferred to a different school, one that didn’t have a spelling program. So I started one. I also redoubled my studying efforts. The state bee pounded me, and the runner up really ensured that I would earn my trip back to Washington that year. Boy, did I…but the two of us battled back and forth for nearly an hour until I won.
I’m not really sure what to say about the 1989 National Spelling Bee that the picture above doesn’t already say. That moment was one of the most exciting, thrilling moments of my life, and I had put in hours of painstaking, diligent study to get there. But I can’t deny that a fair bit of luck came into play there, too…a number of fellow competitors could have taken the trophy that day.
Since that time, I have been involved with spelling bees in virtually any capacity you might imagine. I’ve been a judge, a pronouncer, an escort for spellers who have missed their word, a guest speaker, a written test grader, a spelling coach…I even was a press representative for USA Today, covering the 1990 National Spelling Bee. I then worked on the staff of the National Spelling Bee for a few years in the mid-1990s. I just haven’t been a bell-ringer. And I would be perfectly happy not ever having that responsibility.
Even after I left the bee staff, I still enjoyed watching the competition each year. I would test myself against the barrage of words that other spellers had to negotiate, and enjoyed the thrill of seeing spellers get words right, while commiserating with those who missed.
I attended the Scripps National Spelling Bee in 2011 purely as an enthusiastic observer, and got excited all over again. Soon after that, I accepted a request to coach a student in preparation for the 2012 bee. My student ended up placing 7th in the nation…the highest placing first-timer from the US. Not bad for a first-time spelling coach, either! Since 2012, I have coached many students aiming for the National Spelling Bee, and have a wealth of experience and information to help them on their way.
The bee is a big part of my life, and I don’t ever see that changing. The English language is just too fascinating, and the excitement of competition had me hooked from the moment I spelled “population” and won my first bee. As a spelling coach, I hope to share that experience with many other students in the future.