/ˈli-nәt/ n. Middle French linette, from lin flax, from Latin linum; from its feeding on flax seeds circa 1530 : a common small brownish Old World finch (Acanthis cannabina).
Hannah Due was from Grand Forks, North Dakota. Like me, she was home-schooled, although she was the kind of home-schooler who wore blue denim jumpers and blushed when people said hell instead of heck. At the 2003 Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee, I stared at the back of her head for several rounds because bee procedure dictates that the next three spellers line up behind the person currently spelling, so that everything proceeds decently and in order. The master of affairs will not call your name, because it is the only word in a bee that does not matter. You are expected to know that you are speller 1, or 21, or 251, and to stand in the proper sequence because no one will call your number either. So I, number 41, followed Hannah Due, 40, for six rounds, studying her wilted blond ponytail and her hands wringing behind her back.
In the sixth round, the Bee Pronouncer, Dr. Jacques Bailly, intoned “linnet,” and Hannah’s hands stopped wringing. I tensed in anticipation as she requested the definition, then asked to have the word used in a sentence. Some spellers use these tactics to triple-check that the word spoken is the one they are visualizing rather than a deceptive homophone; others use them to bargain for time and scraps of aid before the bell rings. It was clear that Hannah belonged to the second category. I scoffed at her doubt. I had read Yeats, hadn’t she? She ought to know that you could “never tear the linnet from the leaf.” So I had already mentally rung her out when, in the final seconds of her allotted time, she guessed the double N that saved her for one more round. She smiled at me, vibrating with relief, as she returned to her seat.
When I stepped up to the microphone, I was calm and too small for my white XL official bee polo shirt, which would have reached past my thighs had I not been instructed to tuck it lumpily into my black polyester pants. The lights, positioned for ESPN cameras, made me sweat. Their glare made it hard to distinguish individuals in the crowd, with the exception of J. J. Goldstein’s yenta mother, easily identifiable because she sat sewing bee-themed pillowcases a few rows back near the center aisle.
I adjusted the microphone to stop my hands from wringing like Hannah’s. Dr. Bailly said “byrnie” in his stark clear tones, and I knew at once how loneliness felt. In every other moment of my conscious life, in every other bee, in every other round, I had been in the company of words, words I recognized and understood. They unwrapped in my mind like shiny italicized gifts, and tapped themselves out like telegraph messages. They were newspaper headlines, bold-faced remnants of the ursprache; they were eldritch beacons; they were fragments of radioactive pitchblende picked up for their peculiar luster. Most of all they were unlooked-for treasure. But here, standing on the stage in front of cameras and my family and a hundred other spellers, I did not meet words I knew, but the wrong word, letters that mixed themselves up until there was only blankness. After a brief pause, I asked for a definition.
/kämә-lauk-yon/ n. Greek kamélaukion, alter. (probably influenced by Greek kamélos) : a tall brimless hat worn by priests and monks in some Eastern rites.
I came to spelling by an unusual path, though superficially I was like any other speller who wakes up and realizes she is almost out of time to gain glory through verbal prowess. I was always a good speller and decided to compete in my last year of eligibility (eighth grade, or age fourteen). I was thirteen and in eighth grade, so in a fit of recklessness, I entered the local bee for home-schooled students, who were excluded from the public school bees. I envisioned myself at sixteen—or sixty—watching the bee on TV and saying, “I could have done that.” I didn’t want to miss my last opportunity.
Of course, another reason, the one that doesn’t fit neatly into the story of what I might have regretted, was that when I was eleven my father started keeping me alone in my room for a week or two at a time. In this punishment, I was allowed to talk to no one but him. My family obeyed these rules for the most part, though occasionally one of my sisters would sneak in to talk to me. At first, the silence covered me so thoroughly that I thought I might suffocate in it. In the first few days without sound, the air felt heavy and seemed to shift until I thought I could hear the dust motes circling around my head. The light weighed on me, but even more, the dark, which muffled every sound.
Eventually, I took comfort in words. Usually, my father gave me a Bible to remind me of my need for repentance. Sometimes he highlighted passages for me to remember. I read the genealogies of Genesis and Numbers without comprehension, tonguing the words as they fell out of my mouth and into the air. I collected words that surprised me and kept notebooks stuffed with favorites and lists of names. I took delight in cataloguing and pronouncing, learning that Aoife was EE-feh, and lazuli was LA-zhuh-lee. I learned to love the sounds of words I didn’t understand. I also learned that I had an almost-perfect recall for words I had seen only once.
Yet I never remembered the first word that made me an official spelling bee champion. There are multiple levels in the bee world: first, the local bee, which was sponsored by a home-school association; then the regional bee, sponsored by the Columbus Dispatch, which then funded the trip to the national bee in Washington, DC; and finally, the Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee, the culmination of spelling bee study for 251 students from the United States, Guam, and one American school on a military base in Germany. Hardly anyone knew the exact hierarchy of bee competition, but everyone grasped the basics of competition. For months, whenever people heard that I had won my local bee, they invariably asked me to spell my winning word.
This is the question every speller I know is used to, the one that both good and bad spellers ask. Whether or not you are a good speller seems to be a universal categorization, a line that divides every group of people in two. Good spellers ask this question because they want to test themselves against your range of knowledge; bad spellers ask it because they want to be part of your club, the exclusive group of people who know the shapes of words. I never knew what to say to anyone, however they categorized themselves. Finally, I settled on chthonic for the good spellers, and camouflage for the bad.
During the regional bee in Columbus, Ohio, I watched number twelve, a hearing-impaired boy, boldly spell magenta as N-A-G-E-N-T-A after scrawling invisible letters on the backs of his wrists and asking to hear the word over and over. Fewer than five minutes later, his parents had appealed the judges (claiming, among other things, mispronunciation), and we spellers sat wriggling on our seats, thrown out of the competitive vacuum into a strange world where the next word—the next word—no longer arrived on schedule.
“What was your last word?” the girl in front of me whispered as she swiveled in her seat.
She was another one of the arm-spellers, the ones who used the tender undersides of their arms as if they were Post-it notes. She had long straight hair that covered half her face, which she pushed out of her eyes as she repeated her question.
“I have no idea,” I answered honestly, though she stared at me as if she suspected me of mocking her. I looked back at her without smiling, knowing she wouldn’t believe that each word emerged glossy and untarnished, revealing itself to me with intrinsic perfection, before vanishing. She wouldn’t believe that this trance-like state was so complete that I forgot each word as soon as I spelled it.
“I don’t remember any of them,” I clarified.
“Kamelaukion,” said the boy next to me, who smelled like puberty. “Your last word was kamelaukion.”
At that moment, the bee resumed. The challenger had not been readmitted, to the chagrin of his parents and no one else. M-A-G-E-N-T-A, I thought as I waited for my number to be up. K-A-M-E-L-A-U-K-I-O-N. O-E-R-S-T-E-D. I-N-T-A-G-L-I-O. I fell again into the world of words.
/ˌpa-trә-ˈni-mik/ n. ultimately from Greek patronymia patronymic, from patr- + onyma name, 1612 : a name derived from that of the father or a paternal ancestor usually by the addition of an affix.
I remembered my winning word after the Dispatch bee only because a newspaper columnist reminded me, asking if I had known "patronymic" before I spelled it. “Had you seen it before?”
I wanted to tell him that it didn’t matter if I had or had not because I knew that word as soon as I heard it; I knew it in itself. But I told him about learning some Greek word roots from reading The Odyssey the year before. And then, exhausted by trying to explain, I said, “It was just so simple.”
He laughed at my answer. My mother hovered nearby to beam her pride and disavow any credit for my win, insisting truthfully that I had done it all myself. The newspaper asked my mother and me to appear in a photo together, though it was never printed. In the photo that did appear with the article, my hair is a crazy halo and my shirt is askew. I am not looking directly at the camera, but instead past it, into an invisible horizon. I can’t stop smiling.
My father learned about my win from the newspaper article. I hadn’t told him I was planning to compete, afraid that one of his sudden rages would flare up and prevent me from going to the bee. But, surprisingly, he congratulated me and called all my aunts and uncles to tell them the good news. When my name-plated trophy was delivered to the house, he placed it in the center of the mantel, even though I said it was too conceited and my mother said it was too gaudy.
A week or so after the Dispatch bee, I knocked on the door to his home office to ask him a question about dinner and heard him telling someone on the phone that I had known patronymic because of his teaching. I couldn’t speak. The words I had thought were mine seemed no longer in my possession. He had moved in to occupy the space I had staked out for myself. I wanted to shout at him all the words I knew that he never would. I wanted to whisper that my revenge would be to win without his help.
When I could speak again, I told my mother that I didn’t want him to accompany us to the national bee. She said I should reconsider because it would hurt him to know that I didn’t want him there, but I refused to listen to her, stoic against all potential repercussions.
In the days that followed, I began to compile a binder full of hundreds of pages of words. The first word on the first page was aardwolf, then abecedarian, and so on past croquembouche and gnathonic to zwieback and zymotic. I sat by the bay window in the kitchen every day until my father returned home from work at five-thirty. I copied words and word roots and definitions, repeating them to myself until I couldn’t close my eyes without seeing a page in front of me, penciled words arranged neatly on lined paper. Every day he told me to go upstairs, and as I left I took my words with me. My dictionary weighed twelve pounds, my binder almost as much. The words, in my head and in my arms, were my armor, my strength.
/kē-ˌär-ә-ˈskyu̇r-ist, kē-ˌer-, kē-ˌa-r ә-, -ˈsku̇r-/ n. Italian, from chiaro clear, light + oscuro obscure, dark, circa 1686 : an artist who specializes in chiaroscuro, the pictorial representation in terms of light and shade without regard to color or the interplay of light and shadow on or as if on a surface.
I won the Dispatch bee at the end of March; I competed in the national bee at the beginning of June. In the intervening months, I studied an average of eight hours a day. Some days I managed only six, and others I made it up to ten (I noted these times down with accompanying dates in the corners of my binder, creating a ragged timetable of study hours). During the mornings and afternoons, I usually memorized words, transferring them from dictionary to binder, or binder to notebook, in a process that left my hands cramped and my eyes red. I had a binder of words I knew, a notebook of words I needed to know, a sheaf of papers full of words I had catalogued in order of their likeliness to appear in the bee. In the evenings, I practiced word roots and learned characteristics of different languages, the hardest part. Discovering the underlying fractures in words that ordinarily seemed whole was like a jigsaw puzzle for which you had to cut out all the pieces yourself. I was most comfortable with Romance languages and Greek, least at home with words from Germanic languages, Sanskrit, or Swahili.
Most spellers have coaches, parents or teachers who devote themselves to learning from Merriam-Webster’s unabridged dictionary exactly how to pronounce bodhran in all its tricky Gaelicism or how to differentiate between macrons and schwas and dotted D’s. My mother tried her best, but she was not one of these parents. She had eight children and no leftover time. When she came to my room to offer me help, it was always late, after everyone else had fallen asleep. And after the first few times, I always refused, telling her it was easier if I studied alone. She accepted this, grateful, because she was tired and anything non-Latinate thwarted her tongue.
I did want someone to help me. I daydreamed about a beneficent guide who would take over my spelling life with spelling strategies and helpful hints. But after a while, alone was the only way I knew how to be.
I was alone, but the words were still there. If I found and collected enough words, the world would hold together. Although I knew the world could not be catalogued like words, it could make sense if I did the right things, an art akin to painting only in light and dark. A printmaking technique called chiaroscuro, I learned, popular centuries ago and based on relations between dark and its absence. It suited me, and I went at my task with a vengeance.
/gräk/ v. US slang. Infl. -kk-. [Invented by Robert A. Heinlein (1907–1988), US author.] 1. v.t. Understand intuitively or by empathy; establish rapport with. 2. v.i. Empathize or communicate sympathetically (with).
In an ideal world, or in the kind of story I used to write and then tear up, I would have read a Heinlein novel during those months of studying. I would have read the right Heinlein novel, the one that would have given me new vocabulary so that when I sat down to take the written test at the national bee, I would have heard Dr. Bailly say “grok” and known it immediately. I wouldn’t have had to waffle while letters reconfigured themselves in my head: G-R-O-C-K or G-R-A-K? But instead, I read To Kill a Mockingbird.
My mother took me to the bookstore one day in early May so I could choose a book. Throughout my childhood, she had never bought me books because they took up too much space. But today, because it was spring, or because she wanted me to stop spending so much time studying, or perhaps because she was struck by the hedonism that makes one crave ice cream cones with two well-balanced scoops or cheap grocery store checkout line chocolate, she wanted to buy me a book. I chose To Kill a Mockingbird because it was a hardback with a black cover and red lettering. The red letters were embossed and I could close my eyes and run my fingers over the front of the book without losing them. My mother approved because it was a movie she had seen as a girl. “I had such a crush on Atticus Finch,” she told me. “Gregory Peck played him, and he was so dreamy.”
The next day, I started to study at my usual time, around nine am. But the pear tree outside the window was white and blooming next to the deep green of a Russian olive tree. I looked past the pear tree to the willows off at the edge of the yard and thought about climbing up until the branches swayed under my weight, the way I used to when we played hide-and-seek. I couldn’t focus on word lists, and my hand felt even more cramped than usual. I left loose sheets of words on the table without reinserting them into the binder, so they scattered to the floor when I slid the back door open and abandoned my lists for my new book.
We had an overgrown garden filled with peonies whose stems were as thick as sailor’s ropes, strange gigantism in the middle of the Midwest. I sat down in a gap in the undergrowth and started to read. I didn’t stop until the sun was too hot on my head, even in the shade of the peonies. When I returned to the house, I realized that everyone else had left, an unusual occurrence in a house of ten people. I was alone. I stretched out on the living room floor under the skylight and finished reading. I didn’t let myself feel guilty for not studying until after my family came back to find me, still prone on the living room floor, the side of my face pressed into the scratchy green carpet, one hand resting on my book.
The next morning, I redoubled my studying, frantic about all the missed hours when I could have been cataloguing words. And months later, when I encountered “grok,” I wondered if I might have known it if I hadn’t read To Kill a Mockingbird. I might even have read a different book and been saved from the tears at the end of the written test, from the way my throat felt as if it were too full and the way my lips pressed against my teeth until they were sore. But I was alone with words that day in a different way, and for a while I was guiltless and free.
/ˈbә:nit/ n. obs. exc. Hist. Also (earlier) †brinie. ME. [ON brynja. Metathetic var. orig. Sc.] A coat of mail.
When I asked for a definition, I couldn’t visualize any part of the word except the opening B, even when I looked down the aisle toward the top of the far auditorium door, where God sits when you are onstage. Dr. Bailly gave the definition in his habitual monotone: “a coat of mail, or hauberk.” I wished for the word hauberk as a substitute. I wished for linnet. Hannah Due had no idea how lucky she was. No one had ever used byrnie, unlike linnet, in a poem. There was no romanticism in missing byrnie, only battle-scarred reverberations and years of people making disbelieving faces until I explained, no, not Bernie. At last, I asked to hear the word used in a sentence.
The sentence talked about girding up for battle, offering no further clues about the spelling. When I strained to see the word in my mind, it circled itself, U’s and I’s and E’s and Y’s trading places with abandon. As the audience waited, I saw the head judge move her hand to the top of the bell, preparing to ring me out. I closed my eyes and, for the first time, envisioned nothing but the dim recesses of the ceiling above the camera lights, the judges’ expectant faces, the darkness of my own eyelids. So I opened my eyes and started to spell. A little too fast, and softly, into the microphone: B-I-R-N-E-E.
The judge slapped the top of the bell.
I have never seen the recording of myself in the moment of failure. For months and years after the national bee, I couldn’t watch any of my family’s videotapes. Even catching glimpses of dramatized movie versions of spelling bees made me sit up straighter, shoulders making a break for my ears, as if I had suddenly moved from an overheated room into the Antarctic. I have never seen Spellbound, the most famous documentary about the bee, nor have I watched any subsequent national spelling bees. Even after years had passed, the sound of spellers released in me the same frenetic anxiety, the same shudder I had felt standing on the stage as the bell rang. If people say that failure is a plummeting sensation in your stomach, they are describing only the immediate aftermath. Failure, properly done, settles inside the bones like a weather ache in hurricane season.
When I left the stage, I did not break down. I refused to go to the Cry Room, where staffers waited with cookies and gathered your family for private condolences. I seemed so composed that the staffers assigned to escort me off-camera let go of my arms and let me walk away. So I kept walking, past where Mrs. Goldstein sewed, past the rows of journalists, past my mother, past the other losing spellers clustered at the back of the auditorium. I knew I should stay and be gracious about losing, or let myself be comforted in the Cry Room, but I couldn’t stay where I could hear the words. In all my attempts to make the world the way I wanted it, I hadn’t counted on failing.
I did not stop moving until I had left the auditorium behind. I needed to leave the sounds of the words (as I walked out, someone else was losing, spelling betony, a word I knew, as B-E-T -T-A-N-Y). I stopped in the middle of the main lobby, an atrium filled with palm trees and plastic bromeliads, unable to keep going. My legs shook. A piano floated on an island in a clear green pool reeking of chlorine. A man floated there too, playing imitation Chopin that tinkled up to the distant ceiling of the atrium before falling back into artificial light. Some people were eating a late lunch in the café by the water’s edge, near the floating piano. They may have looked at me with curiosity or indifference, but I couldn’t tell. My eyes filmed over like windows in a heavy rain. The world grew silent as I thought of all the words I knew.