One by one the students file in, their pre-selected numbers dangling around their necks. They nestle into their seats, most of them sitting on their hands to hide their anxiety, and the judges march in to take their places. The lights dim and the host approaches the microphone. “Welcome, everyone, to the 10th Annual Spelling Bee!” Everyone applauds, a string of announcements are relayed and a prayer is offered before the actual competition begins. The tension is thick on the stage among the competitors, but the anxiety level in the audience is just as easily felt.
Phew! That sent chills up and down my spine just typing it! We just lived that scenario two days over this past week and I’m still shaking off the anxiety. March is that time of year when one of the catholic schools in our diocese hosts an annual spelling bee for other area catholic school students in grades four through eight. This was the second year of participation for our eighth grader (our middle son) and the first for our fifth grader (our youngest). There was quite an onslaught of nervous emotions exuding from our middle son as he walked into this year’s bee as last year’s winner. It was a title that brought Aaryn a year of fame that still runs through the halls of his school and a rather nice reward, not to mention a heavy dose of high expectation.
The word “competition” itself creates a fear inside of me personally and I still sense that monster any time my boys are involved in an activity such as this. Growing up, I felt forced into academic and music competitions like I was training for the Olympics. There was an expectation placed upon me to be the best…….or to not even try at all. I drove myself to be first in just about everything and, when I wasn’t, it hurt like you would never believe and weighed on me heavily. A huge portion of this was my personality – I’m naturally a perfectionist and have set very high standards for myself over the years Of course, there is a portion of the fear that stems from a need for acceptance and approval…but that’s another story for another time perhaps. By the time my high school years came around, however, I was slammed with a massive dose of reality and I was losing just about everything around me. From theatrical roles and academic standing to all-state competitions and class notables, it felt like I could never catch a break. It began to eat me alive and create in me a sense of insecurity with which I have struggled over the years….so much so that I tend to shy away from competition like it is a plaque. I literally avoid just about everything that involves competing for a title, a reward or a position – anything that draws a particular level of attention and notice. It makes me sick to my stomach.
However….now I’m a mother and I don’t want my boys to feel the way that I do. I want to build in them a healthy view of competition, a healthy reaction towards loss and a high respect for those that do win – for everyone involved actually. I want them to know that, yes, feeling the loss is important and there is certainly a freedom to express that loss, but I also want them to be able to function with integrity, pride, contentment and peace as they take that next step outside of that competition. I want them to see the big picture. This has been a challenge for me, but I have spent the last sixteen years training myself to do just that. I tend to carry so much of the anxiety, while I encourage them to acknowledge, accept and move on. This was just another footprint of their journey – look back only to see how far you have come. Boy – I need to take my own advice!
After two nights of competition, Logan was out in the second round with the word “cacophony” and Aaryn made it to the top 11 out of 150. He was devastated when he misspelled “assiduous,” a word that he knew so well. I could see it on his face and every mother (parent) reading this blog knows the feeling that just goes right through to the inner core of your heart when you see your child distraught. I have grown over the years, so I was able to keep my smile on after he acknowledged me with his grimace of realization. I simply mouthed to him the words, “It’s all good. You did amazing!” I then waited, holding back my own tears, until the end of the round so he could plant himself right next to me for some much needed encouragement.
We chose to stay until the end of the bee that second night, simply because it was important for the boys to cheer on the last contestants. Everyone needs a cheerleader and we know the feeling of watching others walk out and go home once their run is over, despite there still being others up onstage duking it out. I felt it was also important for Aaryn to approach and congratulate the winner, a passing of the baton of sorts. It means a great deal to have people acknowledge your accomplishments and it helps to build character as it forces one to take that sadness of his own loss and focus on someone else’s feelings of accomplishment. I think it helps to resolve the agony of defeat, as well.
Being that encouraging mom is both easy and difficult to navigate at the same time. On a mom level, I was obviously rooting for them to win, but I can’t put into words the degree of pride I have for them (this goes even for my oldest, who no longer participates in spelling bees, but challenges himself to be elected the first 15 year old Junior Student Body President of his school). It takes a great deal of strength to stand up in front of hundreds of strangers, to be asked to perform at the best of your ability, to take the risk of being wrong. Personally, I continue to train myself not to overplay the “what ifs” or the consequence of loss in my head and heart to the point of exhaustion. Aaryn got over his loss quickly, as did Logan. They have a great sense of individual pride in their accomplishments, as well as great friends, teachers and family who encouraged them. They have a realistic sense of the fact that this was just one competition and that life is going to provide them with tons of opportunities that will challenge them to be the best they can be as young men in this crazy world.
Until the next step ~
~ The proud mom of two Spelling Bee participants this year ~