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The Words You Can’t Forget

The word that killed me was oxygen.

I was in fourth grade, competing in our grade-wide spelling bee. I was confident I’d do well because I was a good girl who got good grades, except in handwriting. So I stood and waited for my word. The teacher got to me. “Gretchen, your word is oxygen.”

“AAAAaaaaa…ooooOOOOO X Y G E N?”

I knew it began with an “O” but for some reason, my mouth said “A” and then tried to nonchalantly morph it into “O.” Nobody was fooled. I was done. I sat down and was so angry with myself, I poured out my feelings in that night’s diary entry.

Also, I couldn't spell H O M E W O R K, which isn't about the most compelling argument for homework I can think of.

Does anyone forget the word they screwed up in elementary school spelling bees? Joel won’t.

On Wednesday, he competed in his school’s spelling bee. He won his class bee a week earlier and was extremely proud of himself, to the point he began talking about going to Washington D.C. I told him to take it one bee at a time and he agreed. H U M I L I T Y. I also told him I was proud of him for simply making the school spelling bee. That was farther than I ever got O X Y G E N.

When Wednesday arrived, he was nervous and excited. He was also in a mood for irony. When he dressed, he chose a favorite long-sleeved graphic t-shirt. I was hoping he would dress up a bit for the competition, but I made a quick turnaround when he told me the reasoning behind the shirt. It’s bright green with a carton of milk and a chocolate chip cookie high-fiving. Above the happy pair is the word, in all caps, TEAMWORK. “I’m competing against other kids, but I’m wearing a shirt that says TEAMWORK. Get it?” I did.

Because Lee had to work on Wednesday afternoon, I was unable to watch Joel compete. My life is the three little dudes and the fact they are not entertained by their big brother—or anyone—spelling things. Also, the spelling bee was scheduled right in the middle of sacred nap time. Thankfully, Lee’s parents were able to support Joel, along with his siblings in the audience. I was nervous all afternoon until my mother-in-law texted how Joel did—he made it to the fourth round.

When I picked them up for school, Joel climbed in the van and told me how it went. I asked what word tripped him up.

“Ugh! I could see the word in my head and knew it, but when I said it I messed up! I said ‘S’ instead of ‘C’!”

So what was it!? What was his O X Y G E N?


Huh. So Joel’s legacy as a 4th-grade spelling bee competitor was to go out spelling legacy. I pointed this out to him, but he had already thought of it. I also told him he would never, ever forget how to spell L E G A C Y as long as he lived. He might forget everything else, but his legacy would be as a man who could spell legacy.

Just like I will never forget how to spell the word that sustains life as part of a beautiful cycle from plants to humans. It’s truly a gift produced by our green leafy friends on mountain hillsides and picturesque islands!

Did you think I was going to say O X Y G E N?

No, it’s Friday afternoon after a long, long week.

I’m going with C O F F E E B E A N S.

13 comments to The Words You Can’t Forget

  • Uck, devastating. He has had a taste of the Bee and will work all that much harder for next year. My 5th grader’s “oxygen” when he was a 4th grader was C-O-R-D. Because when he asked for a sentence she used “a cord of wood”. He thought too much and spelled chord. Joel’s legacy (pun intended) is not in stone yet… oh no, he’s got two more years to conquer that elementary Bee. 🙂

    • Gretchen

      Good point! And actually, he attends a K-8 school, so he has 4 more years to potentially show Spelling who’s boss. And congrats on your son’s win this year (but sorry the Bee was a mess!)

  • erin from swonderland

    Totally! Spelling bees. When I was in 2nd (I think?) grade, it was nighttime. I remember saying “n-i-g-h-t — and then paused for an extended amount of time until I couldn’t remember how many times I had said t, was it one, or two? Did I already say it twice? If I say “T” again, will I be spelling nightttime-Wait, does it even have two Ts? NIGHTIME NIGHTTIME? So I picked back up -i-m-e. nightime. Ahh!

    • Gretchen

      Isn’t it always the hesitation and second-guessing that gets us? Picturing poor little you in 2nd grade, stressing out in front of the school.

  • I was on a TELEVISED spelling bee show for three episodes! I don’t remember what I misspelled, to be honest, and I cannot watch the video cassettes since I don’t have a VCR.

    • Gretchen

      Wow! You are not a speller to challenge to a spelling fight. Televised is cool! Ah, if only there were a way to watch them again. Your boys would love to see that. If you know anyone over the age of 70, I bet they have a VCR lying around to borrow.

  • My word was “reversible.” To this day, I STILL want to put an ABLE at the end. *sigh* I did get 4th Place in my School District, and 4 is my favorite number, so I took solace in that. Funny the things we remember!

    • Gretchen

      You know, I’m often tripped up by “ible” and “able.” I wonder if there’s a trick to remember which is which? Oh, English, you crazy language. It’s so cute that you were cool with finishing 4th because you liked the number.

  • We didn’t have spelling bees. I like to think that this is a damned shame, as I am an excellent speller, but if our cutthroat games of Cranium on girls’ cottage week-ends have taught me one thing, it’s that spelling words out loud is MUCH different from spelling them on paper. Glad he bounced back so well.

    • Gretchen

      Ooh! We love Cranium. My SIL is a master at spelling and can rattle off letters, even for words spelled backward, immediately. Everyone always wants to be on her team. Did you know some places have adult spelling leagues and Bees? I have friends that compete in them. I never could, but they have a ton of fun with it.

  • Mary B

    Oh my! I remember this. My kids never seemed traumatized by the spelling bee. I’ll never forget. I took 2nd place. My word was EXCELLENT. But, I spelled it “ant”. Every time I write it out I remember…

  • Tyler

    Mine was MAIZE, like the corn. Never have forgotten that one.

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