I was in the spelling bee, and all I got was this lousy T-shirt

I know how to spell “dysfunctional.” Yes, it’s D-Y-S, not D-I-S. I’ve known this for almost half of my life, but when it mattered, I didn’t. When it mattered was when I was a fifth grader in the county spelling bee: I went with my intuition and spelled it D-I-S. But my surprise when I learned the correct spelling was such that it has stuck in my mind ever since. When someone uses the word, I sometimes blurt, “Did you know that’s spelled with a Y?!” (Granted, this is not my most winsome bit of trivia — it earns me puzzled looks more often than admiration — but it still fascinates me.)

I had never thought of myself as a great speller. In fourth grade, my school didn’t even choose me to be a contestant. So in fifth grade, when they did choose me, I was nonplussed. I was not only unexcited about being in the spelling bee, I was terrified. I had recently seen “Spellbound,” the 2002 documentary about the national spelling bee, and it looked like a nightmare: standing up in front of a huge audience and trying (and probably failing) to list the letters of a word I’d never heard of sounded like the last thing I wanted to do.

But when I found out that the county spelling bee was a written test, I stopped trying to think of ways to convince my parents to pull me out of the competition. Spelling words on a piece of paper wasn’t nearly as daunting as spelling them out loud, so I was no longer nervous. At best, I thought, the spelling bee would be a mildly boring way to spend a Saturday afternoon. (At worst, I would win and move on to the oral round, but I was confident that that wouldn’t happen.)

So I sat with about 100 other students (and some parents) in an auditorium at the local university, and we did our best to spell several dozen words over the course of a few hours. I didn’t win — I didn’t even come close to winning. But I got a T-shirt just for participating — a fantastically loud, orange shirt with blue stars on it — which I still wear on occasion.

In sixth grade, I had the opportunity to return to the spelling bee. This time, I even looked forward to it, because I found that I had enjoyed the challenge of guessing how these funny words were spelled. This time, I relished the lunchtime practice sessions in the school library with the other spellers from my class, during which we’d scribble words on pieces of scrap paper and toss them over our shoulders, crumpled, if we got them wrong. This time, I marched into the auditorium with my chin higher.

Again, I didn’t win. I probably spelled less than a quarter of the words correctly, so knowing “dysfunctional” wouldn’t really have made a difference. And even now, knowing how that one word is spelled doesn’t make much of a difference. Even as a copy editor, I don’t really need to know how to spell — that’s the computer’s job.

And yet, I still wear that ridiculous “2005 Spelling Championship” T-shirt. I don’t wear it to brag — losing a spelling bee isn’t much to brag about. I don’t even wear it because it’s fashionable — the orange and blue contrast so jarringly that it almost hurts to look at. I wear it because the spelling bee taught me more than just “dysfunctional” — it taught me to appreciate this weird and unpredictable language. I wear it because it marks the beginning of my lifelong love of words.

Contact Sydney Gunther at [email protected].