Recently I found myself performing the hallowed duties of judging a local spelling bee.
Sitting in the small auditorium of a local library, my heart suddenly begins racing. The reality of what is occurring is uncomfortably seeping in. The feeling is not unlike a roller coaster pausing at the crest of the first, adrenaline-rushing drop. I guess holding on is my only option.
The room fills with parents, teachers, and siblings. A few grandparents fill out the audience. Nine empty chairs sit before me and three other judges.
The moderator calls the finalists forward. Each takes their respective seat and settles in. A student twists nervously at the ribbon and medal hanging from around his neck. The only thing the contestants share in common is each is different from the other.
When first invited to participate in this event, I failed to appreciate the gravity of the responsibility. I’m told the students and parents have weeks of preparation behind them. Countless hours invested around the kitchen table, the commitment to understanding the intricate rules of spellings beyond memorization. Consider this sit-ups and wind sprints for the mind.
For someone like myself who lives in a world of spellcheck on my laptop and autocorrect on my mobile devices, I feel remarkably ill-prepared for my responsibility.
Moments after explaining the rules and offering a few practice words, the competition begins. The only sound in the room is that of the student standing up from their seat. A challenge word is shared in the most articulate manner possible.
Of the nine contestants, no two solve the literal puzzles the same. While one might look directly forward with the intensity of bullfighter, another rock back and forth and looking to the ceiling tiles while envisioning the spelling.
The words come quickly and without mercy – taking half the field in the first five minutes. And surprisingly, I find myself increasingly nervous. As a contestant might stumble, the moderator looks over to the judges for a decision. Suddenly I’m in the spotlight – one forever tied to the countless hours invested between the student and his family. A moment, in which by the nod of a head, can bring the contestant’s journey to an abrupt end.
Finally, with only two contestants remaining, a head to head battle breaks out – each demonstrating remarkable poise and ability to successfully navigating the circumstances. Much like a prizefight, each took their respective words in stride, thoughtfully answering with enunciating. Neither blinked.
The night came down to a word I couldn’t define for all the tea in China. Or after looking up the definition, for all the oval nuts harvested from a hazel tree.
Sitting at the table, the room came alive with sound. There were smiles, hugs, and tears. Parents shook hands, teachers’ embraced students. In the end, the room was filled with love. And while an easy word to spell, love is a hard thing to accomplish.