Dan and I sit off to the side with the other parents, feeling as nervous as some of the contestants appear. We exchange a few thumbs-up with Arden, in the second row on stage. She seems in good spirits and we are relieved. This day has loomed large at our house since she found out she’d be one of two students representing her class in the bee.
She was honored to have placed at the top of the girls in her class, but she was also very anxious about the prospect of being on stage. Lately, she’s been trying to navigate those waters of early adolescence when the slightest frustration brings her to tears. It’s been a rough several weeks for her, worrying about how she’ll manage to hold herself together on stage, afraid that misspelling a word will cause her to lose her tenuous grasp on her emotions. Reassurances from adults in her life meant little since most of us erroneously assumed she was nervous about losing the bee. But what she was worried about was losing her cool in front of so many peers and parents, a critical difference.
Dan and I talked and strategized with her at length, conferring with friends, perusing books about anxiety, and doing a lot of worrying ourselves. We shared with her Dan’s own spelling bee experience: that the kids prior to him were asked to spell words like table, but when he approached the mike, the word pronounced for him was hypognathous, which he obviously misspelled. We tried to convey that she needed to let go of her fears because so much in a spelling bee is beyond the speller’s control, and that every speller but one would misspell a word. And that all of that was okay and that she’d survive. We tried to pull out by the roots all the what-ifs that sprouted like weeds.
We tried to establish new routines, like afternoon walks and yoga, that would help clear her head. We played down the importance of winning and congratulated her on being a participant. We made sure to spend time each day focusing on her needs, to be ready with extra hugs and to just listen. I finally, truly realized that kids won’t talk unless I shut up.
That part was really hard for me. It’s in our nature as adults to want and need to ask questions. What’s wrong? Is it X? Is it Y? What’s the matter? Why are you crying? Do you not feel good? Did you have a bad day? What can I do to help? It’s intended, I suppose, to give a kid something to latch onto, but it backfires. Our adult minds rarely grasp what is potentially going on in our kids’ heads, it seems. I was often surprised at the reasons she gave me for feeling upset, anxious, and nervous. Usually it was something new to me. Anxiety breeds anxiety breeds anxiety, it seems. I could not hear her until I stopped talking myself.
We’d spent so much time preparing emotionally for the spelling bee that I’d developed my own set of anxieties about it. And so I was pleasantly surprised with how exciting it was to watch. Each of the contestants revealed some endearing aspect of his or her personality during the bee. The audience gasped audibly at appropriate times and cheered wildly at the end of each round.
Throughout it all, I kept thinking back to one of the rules announced at the beginning of the bee. A contestant cannot correct himself after uttering a letter. Just as in life, there are no do-overs.
By the end of the fifth round, all but two of the participants, including Arden, were out. She knew before she’d finished spelling her final word that she’d made an error. But she carried herself with grace to the other side of the aisle.
She learned that she can do hard things. Realizing that is one of life’s greatest lessons. All too often we allow ourselves to give up rather than soldiering through the difficulty. There were days when we wondered if we should let her drop out, if the stress and burden of her fears were far too much for her ten-year-old self to bear. But Dan and I came to understand that allowing her to quit would have proved a greater burden: that she was not capable of facing her fears. We watched from our seats as she stood tall on the stage and shook her fist at those fears, finding her own wellspring of quiet courage and let it flow forth.