What It Was Like to Be the Least Qualified Contestant in the National Spelling Bee in 1998

  1. While other kids were celebrating qualifying by winning their regional bees, I was crying because I won in a long, Amish jumper my mom insisted I wear so no one could see up my skirt onstage. We both figured no one would know, but I ended up on the front page of the local paper.
  2. When another kid asked me at hotel check-in what page of the dictionary I was on, I laughed. Then started to sense I was missing something.
  3. I spent the allotted "study time" writing postcards to everyone I knew. The lobby of the grand Hyatt had a floating piano player. Was I supposed to sit on that news for ten days?
  4. There were screens that flashed facts about you as you spelled onstage, and on the questionnaire I filled out for them a few weeks earlier, my mom crossed out where I had filled in "Neve Campbell" for my hero and wrote "Susan B. Anthony."
  5. I heard my parents laughing when I stalled by asking "what's the etymology?"
  6. I got out in the second round on the word "chauvinism." The in utero younger siblings of today's contestants would eat me for lunch.
  7. They don't have it now, but in my day there was a "crying room" you were escorted to immediately after the ding. It was stocked with the softest cookies and plushest chairs you ever saw, and I loved it. Fifteen minutes in, I was gently asked to leave, and so I did, after packing cookies for all my people (12 family members tagged along.)
  8. A feisty Jamaican girl with a team of track suited trainers won and made a fierce speech about the world underestimating her country at the awards dinner. A few weeks later she was stripped of her title when an investigation revealed that the government had pulled the spellers out of school a year earlier to study full time.
  9. By then I was back home and spending the summer showing my friends a VHS of the cutest boy at the Bee. We rewound the part where he smiled and said, "is that Greek?" 50 million times.