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.