As a kid, I could get buzzed on spelling bees. The adrenaline I felt made the blood in my arms zing and made my teeth nervous. (Have you ever felt that? They don't chatter...my teeth feel excitement and anxiety. Maybe I need special toothpaste.) Watching spelling bees in our old gymnasium, I would turn to my dad and, through nervous teeth, whisper, "I CAN SPELL THAT!" When I was old enough, I entered class, school, county, and state bees. My parents helped me buy the Scripps Howard official study booklets. The whole thing was COOL. It wasn't dramatic like Akeelah ("P-R-E-S-T-I-D-I-G-I-T-A-T-I-O-N. Prestidigitation."). I never made it to ESPN, and the plastic trophies couldn't even be hocked to help Mom with gas money for the van. Didn't matter. It was a thing I really, really liked to do.
One year, I don't remember which, I was competing in Falls City for the county title, pretty comfy with the whole deal. I had short, short hair because I wanted to look like Julie Andrews and Winona Ryder, and a colorblocked, suede vest. Like I said: cool. (No wonder old men sometimes mistakenly called me "Sonny." Yeesh.) I stood at the mike and spelled a few words, then got up and spelled another...incorrectly. I sat down, nearly certain that they would invite me back to the microphone for another word. My teeth were tingly again - ominously so - and I was sad and embarrassed and tired. I went home, laid in my bed, and cried for hours. Hours. The rest of the family listened to my wails through the walls of my room (in addition to spelling, I count projecting as a particular skill) until, eventually, Dad had had enough.
When he swung the door to my room open, I knew I was in trouble. A scolding and a spelling bee disaster in the same night was a lot for a pre-teen to carry, so I wailed louder to drown him out. Trouble is, Dad is even better at projection, and his voice rumbled over all of the anguish:
Dad: "Stop crying. Tell me why you're so sad."
Tala: "A-ah-ah-I FAILED! Imesseditup hic andmisspelledthatword honk andIcan'tgotothenextspellingbee!"
This led into the lecture that, by the miracles of God and parenting, dried up my tears and soaked through my skull, to be mulled over and repeated to friends and teammates and Bible study girls for YEARS after. It was the stuff of legends. Hallmark wishes they'd heard it. I wish I had thought to record it on my '90s-era YakBak.
Dad told me that no one in this family was disappointed in me for showing up, trying, and failing. I had no reason to hang my head unless I gave up. I should only be ashamed if I kept up my pity party and cried myself into a miserable little puddle because I thought I deserved it. I'll never succeed if I don't feel free to fail.
I'll never succeed if I don't feel free to fail.
I totally remember The Night of That Lecture: the half-light coming into my room from the hallway where Dad had snapped the light on in frustration at his melting, hysterical daughter. The yellow gingham bedspreads on the un-bunked bunk beds in the room I shared with Hannah. My deeeeeeep and lasting sorrow. The startle and the fear upon Dad's entry. The alliteration in his lecture. My parents were proud of me. I had failed. Everybody fails. I should be a little wary if I succeed at everything.
(Funny thing? I don't remember the word I misspelled. Just that another kid misspelled "illegal." He added an extra "e" and switched around the "a" and spelled it like the bird. And another kid, who was really nervous, misspelled "pencil" in the practice round. I'm pretty sure he didn't cry, though.)