There is something to be said for low expectations. My daughter competed in the school spelling bee last night. In the weeks before, she was hesitant as to whether she even wanted to compete again. She did the competition last year, studying words nightly, going to 3 practice bee sessions, making note cards. She invested a great deal of time and energy into it and then had an early and embarrassing defeat, the second or third kid kicked out in round one over an easy word that she knew, but misheard. She spelled further instead of farther. She went into this year’s competition with a very different attitude. She didn’t study at all except for twenty minutes last weekend when she and her classmate were over at the house and we practiced some words. He’s an expert speller – studies the roots of words, knows all the origins – Nicole refuses to even bother to break them down in to syllables when trying to spell them. But other than that, Nicole’s plan for the bee was, “I’m gonna wing it.” Her only goal – make it through round one and don’t be the first kid out.
As the competition started, it was clear there were kids who were very invested in it. Nicole was not. Earlier she refused to change clothes into something nicer or even comb her hair. I was able to get a comb through her locks under great protest and redo her pony tails, which over the course of the school day had become wild, with hair standing straight up in a fashion that made her look just a little bit like Don King’s daughter. Nicole got her bee number and took her seat at the back of the stage.
Round one came and she got her word correct. I could see the relief on her face. She had achieved her goal – she made it through the first round – after that, she didn’t care what happened. The bee continued and she kept getting words she could spell. With each word spelled correctly, she appeared more confident, more interested in competing, which is odd to see because she’s not a competitive person – except when it comes to her sister and t.v. viewing time – but sports or academically, she’s more easy going than that. It’s rare that there will be something she wants to badly that she’ll kick into competition mode. The last time she did was for the student council elections. She was disappointed when she didn’t get voted president, but then about ten minutes later, after a few tears had been shed, she came back to me and tried to figure out how she could make herself the political confident of the girl who won. Clearly, she's a born back room operator.
Nicole continued spelling and suddenly, we looked up on the stage and realized it was down to her and three other kids. They were all spellers from her class, one of them was the friend she practiced with, the spelling bee champ from the last two years. He practices words and roots and is by far the strongest speller in the class. He was going for a three-peat. A few misspelled words later, and it was down to Nicole and her friend, a fierce speller who amazes me every time – there doesn’t seem to be a word he can’t tackle. Between them, there would be a winner and a runner-up. I thought for sure that Nicole would be out after the first round of the finals, but they went back and forth spelling three or four more words until they both got one wrong. They continued spelling again until finally, one of them got a word wrong that the other could answer. Nicole was out, the runner-up, not the winner, but for her, for us, it was a huge win. The kid who was out in the first round with further, made it through a dozen or more words that her dad and I sat in our seats trying to figure out how to spell. But the best part about it was, because her expectations had been so low, she wasn’t really invested much either way. Sometimes that’s the best way to go – then you’re pleasantly surprised when go farther than you planned…or is it further?