I’ve always been a great speller. As a kid, being able to spell what I thought was a difficult word made me walk with my head held a little higher, and I loved when people told me how smart I was (who wouldn’t?). But I was small potatoes, really, when it came to spelling. Growing up, I always admired the kids in my school who walked around with the study guides for the big spelling bees. I always thought it would have been so FUN to be crowned the National Spelling Champion.

Unfortunately, classroom spelling bees that led to the school-wide spelling bees, which led to the district-wide spelling bees, which led to the state-wide spelling bees, which led to the National Spelling Bee, only came once a year, and though I usually made it pretty far in the rounds, I was never the last girl standing.

In eighth grade, my teacher announced that the spelling bee was coming up, and handed out a list of words to study. I was excited. I studied, though honestly I thought the words on the classroom study guide were quite easy. None of my friends seemed as thrilled to prepare for the bee as I, so I worked alone.

Finally, the big day arrived. I was going to win that sucker. In my head, I saw myself win not only the classroom bee, but each bee after that, and I saw myself wearing the number on my shirt in the National bee. I saw myself winning the National bee, holding the trophy while my parents hugged me and cried tears of joy.

Our entire class of about 25 kids lined up around the room for the first round. “SO easy!” I thought, as the teacher called out words to each person down the line. By the time she got to me, only one or two students had been incorrect. (Round one tends to be a gimme, kind of like the first few questions on “Who Wants to be a Millionnaire?”)

My turn.

My teacher gave me my word, and I nearly jumped for joy. The word? Cactus.

I barely even had to think about it. Could there BE an easier word to spell?

I thought not.

I stood up straight, looked out over my teacher’s head into the bright stage lights I was imagining (you know, the lights that were right in front of the news cameras and such).

“Cactus,” I said.

C-A-T-U-S. Cactus.”

And then I gave my teacher a dazzling smile, so proud of myself.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “that is incorrect.”


I started to sweat as I made my way back to my desk, head hanging low, heart pounding. I figured out what I had done by the time I sat down, and it was all I could do to keep from crying. As I sat there for what seemed like forever as the spelling bee went on…and on…and on…and on, I mentally kicked my own a$$.

That moment in time? Feels like yesterday. For a woman of 40 (almost, ahem, 41), I think about it pretty often. It’s not that I’m still beating myself up over it, but it’s one of those really annoying life moments. It taught me a lesson, though. Confidence is good, but you’ve got to keep it in check or the size of your head becomes too big for your brain to fit properly. Or something like that.

Although I remained a strong speller, I lost interest in the trophy after that. But as an adult, if I see that the National Spelling Bee is on tv, I watch. And sometimes I allow myself to picture in my mind’s eye that eighth grade Melisa, number on her shirt, trophy in hand, my husband and kids hugging me while crying tears of joy.

Just for a second.

P.S. Here’s something quite annoying: when I typed the word “cactus” the first time in this post, I spelled it “catus”. Ugh.



  • Sue

    I am glad that you wrote that! And funny that you spelled cactus wrong the first time that you typed it. Well funny to me anyway.

  • Heather

    You and I are so alike sometimes. I bet that kind of freaks you out, doesn't it? Thinking that you and I are alike. HA HA HA.

    I am a spelling FREAK! 😀 I LOVE to spell! I won the spelling bee in the 5th AND 8th grade! WOOT WOOT!

  • Heather

    But I lost in the 7th grade 🙁 See! I was so overconfident in that comment that I forgot to put that! ha ha ha ha ha

  • Tom

    Ditto for me, except it was in sixth grade, and the word handed to me was "Filament"

    I spelled it "F – I – L – M -" and the teacher stopped me. "Think about it, Tom. Really concentrate on what you're spelling…" he tried to help me out, but I persisted: "F – I – L – M – " three times, I did it just that way until he finally said "Sorry, that's not right."

    My buddy pulled me aside and informed me of my error.

    What a dope! The lunch room served humble pie that day.

  • Daddy Files

    I did the same EXACT thing in the 3rd grade with "chocolate."

    And I came in second in the whole middle school one year, losing on the word synopsis (I spelled it with an i). I was so pissed because the guy who won it had to spell "hurricane" after that. What the fuck?!!? I get "synopsis" and he gets hurricane.

    I'm still not over it.

  • sandra

    I won the spelling bee in my school four years in a row (still have and love my trophies!. The last year, 8th grade, I went to the district competition and lost 🙁
    Wish I could remember the word that made me a loser.

  • sandra

    After the 2nd win, I had a huge head too. Everyone thought I was so smart. Until my friend won the math competitions and kids started saying, "Oh, math is much more difficult than plain ol' spelling. Ericka is the real smart one!" Ugh. I hated her so much.

  • Michelle

    Fifth grade. Four of us in a row spelled sure "shure" and never figured it out. Duh. Eighth grade was isthmus (which my teacher mispronounced and I never figured out what the word was — issmiss is how he pronounced it). I know you'll be surprised that I'm right there with you — on all counts, including no longer needing to win the trophy after that humiliation 😉

  • DaddysFishBowl

    Great story, I could SOOOO see that being a scene from a movie. I like the moral as well, something I've had to learn a couple of times.

  • feefifoto

    Remember when Charlie Brown misspelled "beagle"? It's a lot harder to spell out loud than see it on paper. Me? I've never misspelled a word in my life. Ever. Not once. Nope, not ne.


  • Karen MEG

    You made me laugh that you typed it incorrectly the first time again. Too cute!

    I'm picturing you with the trophy too. You look great!