Lizzie was glad for no moon or stars as she and her mother headed back to River Road. She could just slump by the backseat window and be mad and sad and embarrassed all alone in the darkness.
It had been a completely different story two years ago. After winning the spelling bee in Mrs. Reeves’ classroom, she became Concord’s sixth-grade entrant for the county spelling bee. For a couple weeks she paged through the Scripps-Howard study booklet she had received, amazed by its really long list of really long words. Oh, she recognized many of the big words, but they had never appeared in her spelling workbooks at school.
When the big night arrived, Lizzie and her mother entered the Christiansburg-Jackson School, where sixth, seventh, and eighth graders from all ten county schools gathered on the stage for the contest.
Lizzie was familiar with the words being pronounced, although there were several she had never spelled on paper or out loud. Each time she stepped to the microphone, she followed her mother’s advice to pronounce the word, spell it at medium speed, and pronounce it again. She even correctly spelled the one word that made her hesitate: “conscience.”
The contest lasted almost two hours, until just two spellers still stood. Lizzie and the other girl continued for fifteen more minutes until Lizzie was asked to spell “unconscious.” “Conscience” floated through her brain as she spelled: “u-n-c-o-n-s-c-i-e-n-c-e-n-e-s-s.” Lizzie was named runner-up.
The next day she received many congratulations, even from the boy who was Concord’s seventh-grade representative. Her picture with the other top finishers appeared right on the front page of the newspaper. Of course, Lizzie had no way of knowing that some of those spellers would become her high school classmates and that the father of the champion would teach them ninth-grade algebra.
As the drive home continued, Lizzie remembered that she and her mother had soon begun to prepare for the next year’s competition. Every few days her mother typed ten words from the study booklet, along with their dictionary definitions. After her sisters went to bed, Lizzie would practice with her mother. She had set her goal: to win the county contest during her seventh-grade year for a trip to the state spelling bee.
And that she did. Lizzie tried never to be overconfident, but her study sessions made her feel prepared. At the school in Rosewood, she saw several of the spellers from the year before. This contest, however, was much shorter, with Lizzie spelling “tonnage” to win.
Again, she received compliments from her teachers and classmates, as well as a trophy from the PTO. Lizzie and her mother continued the late-night study sessions until the state spelling bee.
And then they were on the Ohio State University campus with the best spellers from all over the state. Everyone began with a written test in the morning – the kind of spelling Lizzie liked because she had time to think and could change her mind. The fifty words on that test were the hardest she had ever tried to spell and seemed way more difficult than the ones in her study booklet.
The contestants and their parents enjoyed a fancy lunch in a huge room of the student union, after which the top spellers for the afternoon’s oral contest were announced. Lizzie was not surprised she had not qualified and listened in amazement to the words the finalists spelled with ease.
In the last few miles before her mother turned into their lane, Lizzie relived her eighth-grade county spelling bee, the one she had not won that evening. She was mad and sad and embarrassed all over again.
She simply had not put in the hard work since the previous year. Lizzie assumed she had a good chance to win the county bee again – those words were not so hard. But there were so many distractions that last year in junior high. When she signed up for her high school classes, she found herself nervous but excited about Latin and petrified at the thought of algebra. Lizzie was sure the Russians were planning to bomb America at any time, but her father refused to build a bomb shelter. And she had to start her 4-H sewing project before school was even out for the summer. Mostly, however, Lizzie simply could not imagine herself learning enough hard words to pass the written test at the state level, let alone the oral spelling.
Still, Lizzie felt she would know most any word she encountered at the county bee held at the Salem building in Kingscreek – until the pronouncer said “antidote.” Suddenly the word “anecdote” flashed across her mind. A long time ago, she had seen “anecdote” in the Reader’s Digest and asked her mother about its pronunciation. Now faced with a similar word, she had no time to recall her mother’s reply or to consider the two words. Lizzie made her choice – the wrong choice – and spelled “a-n-e-c-d-o-t-e.” She sat down, having finished tenth.
Lizzie could not console herself that night because she did not yet understand what the adult Elizabeth would come to know: that life is all about the peaks and valleys of success and failure, that victory can be thrilling and defeat agonizing, that we often learn more when we l-o-s-e than when we w-i-n, and that we must learn to appreciate the importance of each.