Back in the sixth grade, I was an enormous bookworm.
This is not news for the few of you who witnessed my reading habits firsthand during my junior high years at Blessed Sacrament Elementary (and still do to this day). My voracious appetite for horror novels, as well as an occasional bag of Cool Ranch Doritos, was obvious.
Being a rabid reader arguably correlated with my sterling spelling skills in school. There was no spelling test on which I scored below 100%, and if you need proof, I'm sure I have some old papers buried in boxes labeled "Hiko's Old Spelling Tests On Which He Never Scored Below 100%."
Before I turned 12, Blessed Sacrament Elementary held a spelling bee for Grades 6 through 8. Each class conducted its own preliminary round, and from there, entered its top ten spellers into a schoolwide competition, which took place on the stage of our auditorium.
Up until this moment, this was the most nervous I had ever been in my Catholic school education. I sat in the back row, watching the 29 of the best spellers in the school go up to the microphone and carefully pronounce the letters of words. Sometimes I thought to myself, I could totally spell those. I made it through words like "subtle," "conflagration," and "abstract." Every time a student misspelled a word, one of the faculty members rang a bell, and said student would walk off the stage and take his or her seat in Reject Row.
As I watched the group shrink as the minutes went by, I felt my confidence grow. You got this, Mitsuzuka. Before I knew it, we were down to ten survivors. We changed seats, the remaining spellers shifting up to the front row. And then there were six...then three...
My competition was a pair of eighth graders. We'll call them Luke and Abby. Luke was a jock, the older brother of someone from my grade. Abby was a tall nerdgirl who seemed nice; I just knew her as That Tall Girl. We took turns at the mic, spelling out words we would never use in our everyday conversations. Apparently -- and I just found this out the day of the competition -- the two remaining spellers would advance to a citywide spelling bee. This only added to my nerves.
And then, just like that, Abby was out, incorrectly spelling a word that I would have gotten wrong myself. (Whew!) The crowd applauded. I shook hands with Luke. We were the Blessed Sacrament champions.
Next up: The City Spelling Bee!
Blessed Sacrament hosted this competition, so it helped that I got to compete on the same stage in a familiar setting. But it only helped so much. I knew I would have to go up against kids from other schools (public schools?), faces and names I didn't know. I wouldn't be familiar with their strengths and weaknesses. I would be going into this with even more uncertainty. During the days leading up to it, I had to study a book of words, all listed in alphabetical order. I absorbed as much as I could.
Luke and I hardly had any interaction the days before the city spelling bee. After all, he was two years older than me, and in elementary school, that's like a decade in age. We did exchange a few words of encouragement here and there. I wondered if he was preparing as much as I was, but something told me that he didn't take the whole thing seriously. He probably had basketball tournaments to worry about, girls to flirt with.
The night of the city spelling bee arrived. It felt weird to be back in school at night. Everything looked different. Dark classrooms took on an ominous feel. (I also loved horror movies.)
The whole competition went by in a blur. I kept to myself before we started. I didn't want to look at who I was up against. A new group of us all took the stage, and we quickly started dropping like flies. Luke only made it halfway through. He misspelled a word I remembered from my study guides. I felt bad for him.
Long story short (too late, I know), I won the city spelling bee. Next up: Districts!
And here's where the devastation comes into play...
Districts -- it sounded so official and grown-up to me -- took place at Stepinac High School in White Plains, a 25-minute drive from New Rochelle. My mom drove me on a blustery late afternoon. We checked in; I was given a numbered badge that I wore on my chest like a marathon runner. This is legit, I thought to myself.
The auditorium was also legit, with real theater seats and a balcony. The judges table stood front and center, just below the stage. Sitting there was a man in a tweed jacket, a middle-aged woman who looked like she shopped at Ann Taylor, and an elderly nun. Let's call this nun Sister Dementia.
The competition started off well. I breezed through my first two words. However, my third word was where things went awkwardly wrong.
I walked up to the mic and looked down at Sister Dementia who was to give me my word. She consulted a sheet of paper with a bony finger, looked up at me, and said into her mic, "Pursue." Her voice was a little shaky, probably tired from teaching all day at the all-boys high school we were currently congregating in.
"Pursue?" I repeated.
"Pursue," she confirmed.
Easy enough, I thought to myself. I knew what the word meant. I didn't need to ask for a definition or for its origins. Pursue: as in, "to chase or go after something." No one had to use it in a sentence for me. I got this.
"Pursue," I began. "P-U-R-S-U-E. Pursue."
Sister Dementia looked at her judging colleagues. A dramatic pause followed. And then, a bell rang. The bell. The sound that killed all spelling bee championship dreams.
I let out an audible, surprised "oh" and looked out into the crowd. There were a few murmurs. I could hear my mother in the audience let out a "tsk" of disappointment, but she wasn't disappointed in me, because she, along with the entire auditorium, knew that I spelled the word correctly.
I started to walk off the stage. Someone in the crowd said, "He spelled the word correctly!" I immediately felt a tension in the large room. Before I could take a seat next to my mom, who was clearly frustrated, the judge in the tweed jacket spoke into his mic to offer some clarification: "We had to let Competitor Number 35 go because he spelled the wrong word. The word was pursuit. P-U-R-S-U-I-T."
11-year-old Hiko didn't know what to say. But today's Hiko would've said, "Are you fucking kidding me?"
I felt numb. The fact that I was taken out of the competition for spelling the wrong word correctly was later infuriating, especially for my mom. I was let go because an elderly woman, who clearly missed her Metamucil shot earlier that day, didn't clearly pronounce my word. "If she can't speak up and annunciate," my mother later said to another parent in the hallway, "then she needs to retire." In other words: Nun, bye.
Apparently there was nothing we could do afterwards. I didn't use my life lines and ask for the word to be used in a sentence to make sure the word I heard was the word being said. For the next several days, I was haunted by the word "pursue" as well as the "what ifs" that eventually followed. What if I had asked for it in a sentence? What if I had spelled it correctly? Could I have won that spelling bee? Could I have advanced to County? To State? To Nationals? Could I have been invited to the White House? I'll never know. It's a minor regret that still lingers throughout my adult life. Lesson learned, I guess: If you're not sure about something, always ask for help.
Whatever. I hope that Sister Dementia later realized the gravity of her poor speaking skills that day. I hope she went back to her convent, cried into her pillow, and asked God to forgive her "for misleading that adorable, chubby Asian boy."
But then again, that was so long ago. She's probably dead now.