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Cannon: What I learned when I lost the spelling bee
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Anne Holman, manager of The King's English Bookshop, asked if I would be willing to participate with co-workers Sally and Lisa in a spelling bee for grown-ups sponsored by the Literacy Action Center at Salt Lake Community College's Redwood Campus this past Monday.

I said yes. Of course! It was for a good cause — the Literacy Action Center works miracles large and small with English-speaking adults who lack basic skills in reading, writing and math. What's not to like about that?

Besides, I thought it might be kind of fun. Even though I forced all my boys to participate in school spelling bees, I'd never been in one myself, so here was my chance to cross it off my bucket list.

Not that "spelling bee," technically speaking, was on my bucket list.

But whatever.

Bottom line, I was excited about the opportunity to spell out loud in front of complete strangers. There are plenty of things I'm not very good at: doing story problems in math, keeping my kitchen clean, grooming dogs, saving money, saying "no" to cupcakes, turning on the television (why should a person have to use two remotes?!) and playing cards.

But when it comes to spelling? Booyah! I've always been a natural-born speller. It's not that I'm so smart — my ability to spell is more of an idiot savant thing, actually. Still. Who cares?

A few days ahead of time, the center forwarded us participants the list of 300 words, which included words I never spell in real life, such as "carburetor," primarily because mechanics don't care if you can spell what's wrong with your car. None of the words on the list was exactly easy, but no matter. I still felt confident.

"Spelling bee trophy," I said cockily, "you are mine!"

And I remained confident ... until the moment I was called to the microphone to spell my first word. Suddenly my mouth went dry. My ears rang. My throat closed. My heart did a high-flying dismount and failed to stick the landing. I felt like a sinner standing before my maker on Judgment Day. My maker: Spell the word "quiescent." And please remember your answer will determine the fate of your eternal soul.

Suddenly I began to overthink the word. There was an "i" and an "e," and doesn't "i" go before "e" except after "c"? But there was a "c" in this word, too, right? Exactly where was that "c" in relation to the "i" and the "e"? Before? Or after?

And what if "quiescent" was just one of those trick words anyway where none of the regular rules applies? English is like that — full of reckless, rogue, rule-breaking words created by the French to booby-trap their neighbors across the channel. (Author's note: For a refresher course on Anglo-Franco relations, please watch "Monty Python and the Holy Grail.")

People! I have never, EVER been more nervous than I was standing alone in front of that mic.

So, OK. Fine. I didn't win the spelling bee trophy, but I did learn several valuable lessons.

First lesson • Adults should occasionally do the things they make their children do (such as spelling bees) so they can see for themselves what an experience really feels like. I can't believe I thought kids were wimps for whining about how scary spelling bees are.

Second lesson • I know how to spell the word "onomatopoeia" now, which (for the record) sounds nothing like its meaning.

Third lesson • The Literacy Action Center performs a truly valuable service for our community. Nice work, guys! (I hope you'll invite me again.) (Maybe.) For more information about the center, including ways you can become involved, please visit their website at http://www.LiteracyActionCenter.org.

Ann Cannon can be reached at acannon@sltrib.com or facebook.com/columnistcannon.

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