Spelling Bees

When I was in third class, we had a spelling bee each week, which I enjoyed immensely.

Ninety-six of us children (no exaggeration, I swear!) stood around the edge of the classroom nervously waiting to begin. Because the room was so long – two rooms, with the concertina-type wooden partition folded back – we couldn’t hear from one end to the other. Sister Xavier stood in the middle and Missy moved around the circle to be sure we each heard our words properly.

Sister gave us one word each in turn and, if we spelt it correctly, we remained standing and waited for our next challenge. If we were incorrect, we sat in our usual seat, and so it went on until the winner was the only one standing.

I loved spelling and did well in these exercises. I was often one of the last few spellers, then one day I was one of the last two. Sister Xavier said the word ‘business’ and I spelt it ‘biseness’. I was disappointed, but proud to be so close to the top of such a big class. The next week, I was again one of two still standing when the other girl spelt her word incorrectly. I went to sit down, thinking I’d won.

‘Stay there’, Sister said, and she gave me another word. I spelt it correctly and again began to move towards my seat.

‘We’ll keep going’, Sister said, ‘until you make a mistake’. She continued to pummel me with words, and the more difficult they got the more determined I was to not make a mistake.

The class was on high alert. The words kept coming and I kept spelling them.

‘I give up’, she said, and turned to walk to the front of the room. Then she turned back, ‘I’ve got one more for you’, she said. ‘If you get this one right, you can have an early mark.’

An early mark didn’t help me much because I had to wait for the bus, but I was baited. Then came the word, ‘incomprehensibility’. I had never heard it, let alone know what it meant or how to spell it.

I swallowed hard, and told myself to go slowly and spell one syllable at a time. That hadn’t worked with ‘business’, but it might with this word – it was the only strategy I had, and this was about more than getting out of school early.

‘in-com-pre-hen-sib-il-ity’, I said in measured tones. Sister Xavier saluted, and there was a collective cheer. I left the classroom to wait alone at the bus stop to the sound of clapping and foot-stomping led by the two teachers. I knew the principal wouldn’t be happy with my teachers for allowing the commotion, and would be livid if she knew they were involved.

As shy as I was, this was one of the highlights of my school days…


What words hold significance for you? Why?

Share your thoughts in the Comments section…


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4 thoughts on “Spelling Bees”

  1. I used to win spelling bees too. But my strongest memory is of one where I was knocked out in the early rounds. And it wasn’t due to a spelling mistake, but pronunciation.
    The word was ‘tiny’ – easy enough, you’d think. ‘Tiny,’ I said. ‘T-I-N-Y … teeny.’ I realised my mistake immediately and my heart dropped. At home, if something was small, Mum would call it ‘teeny-weeny’. I was eliminated – me! The best speller in the class! Humiliated, I stomped home and raged at my bewildered mother – unfairly, I suppose. But it’s funny that I can remember that so vividly, but none of the words that I won with.

    1. I think the disappointment and humiliation make the experience of losing even more potent than winning… and thus the words associated with the loss stay with us, as do the feelings. I had a similar experience with mental arithmetic when I was in 5th class and was eliminated from the competition because the teacher had the answer incorrect. I was furious and so was my mother…

      1. Tegan Bennett Daylight: “You never remember anything so well as you do moments of shame. So when I came to writing this book all I had to do was turn out my pockets and there they all were.”
        I can’t remember which book she was talking about but I did keep the quote.

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