Then you fail. You fail in front of other people. You fail by a hair-thin margin of error. You fail in front of a crowd of total strangers.
That's what happened to me at the Deep Ellum Spelling Bee on Wednesday at Three Links.
Words are the tools I use to make my living and typos are my enemy. One of them vanquished me.
The spelling bee, one of the first live competitive events held in Deep Ellum since the pandemic hit, was organized as more than just a reason to get out of the house. It was also a clever way to raise $450 in donations for the Resource Center, one of the most active LGTBQ empowerment groups in North Texas. That factor was one of the few proud moments of my pitiful attempt at victory.
The Spelling Bee followed the model Scripps National Spelling Bee, the annual youth spelling competition covered by national news outlets including ESPN. Twenty-five spellers, separated into five groups, take turns spelling words. Each competitor has 90 seconds to say the word, ask for a definition and a sample sentence for clarification, spell it, and then say it one last time. Spellers who make any mistake are eliminated and the last person standing goes to a championship round.
After explaining these rules, including the part about "spelling it," the bee's host, Danny Neely, a comedian from the Dallas Comedy House who also founded the online comedy collective Comedy for the Internet said: "And by 'it,' I mean the word. Don't be cute."
Unlike the prestigious Scripps spellabration, people in the audience are allowed to sabotage a contestant's turn. They could purchase a plush unicorn (with a $25 donation) they could throw on the stage, forcing the player to spell a different word, or spin a wheel to determine a challenge such as making a participant spell a word backwards, while standing on one foot — or after doing a shot of a stiff drink.
"I'm a writer AND a drinker," I thought to myself. "I've so got this."
The first group of spellers took the stage and two contestants, Danny and his wife, Sarah, started spouting words like "cat" and "dog."
"The words will get progressively harder," Danny said. "We have to be out by 9 p.m."
I was in the very last group. Perfect. I not only had to wait the longest, which is already an emotionally taxing torture, but I was sure I was bound to get words like "Zoroastrianism" and "accoutrements." Not even the magic of alcohol could calm my mind down. It never does, but that's never stopped me from trying.
I caught one of the contestants coming off the stage to ask them what it's like to spell in front of total strangers. Maybe another perspective would calm my nerves.
'It's terrifying," said a woman named Nelly. "I wanted to shit myself."
I went back to Plan A: more alcohol.
Then some good signs started to emerge. One of the players got "Massachutsettes" (or at least that's how they spelled it) as their word. To be fair, even if a crazed Batman villain named The Speller forced me to spell that word at gunpoint, he'd put a bullet in my head by the time I got to the "chu."
Four groups went by and it was finally my group's turn to take the stage. I clutched my double plastic cup of Guinness, took a big sip so my nervous shaking wouldn't cause a spill, and headed to the stage. That's when HE decided to join: Pete Freedman, the founder of website Central Track, who was in my group. To be clear, we're not enemies by any sense of the word. He's been a guest on my Twitch podcast and we've always been friendly, but now we were competing against each other in a competition that involves a skill required for both our livelihoods. Plus, Freedman is great at being a heel. He's even sporting a pair of Aviator sunglasses, the official eyewear for heartless bastards everywhere. All of those feelings went right out of my head.
I stepped up to the mic clutching my beer the same way I clutch the seat in front of me during turbulence on a bumpy airplane ride. Sarah read my word to me: "chihuahua."
I had done pretty well up until now but my mind just blanked. I immediately tried to recall the cover of the Beverly Hills Chihuahua DVD I've probably seen more than any human should. I wasn't sure, but I managed to cautiously burp out the letters.
"C-H-I-H-U-H-U-A," I said.
"I'm sorry, that's incorrect." Sarah said.
"Motherfucker!" I screamed, momentarily forgetting that I have a social phobia.
It's not just that I lost. I lost at spelling, something I can do so well that I pay my rent with my skill.
I shuffled back to a table to watch the remaining spellers. It was down to two people: Freedman and Hilary Simon. Freedman totally chunked on the word "sinophile" by opening with a "c-y-," giving Simon the bobble-headed bee trophy.
So the night wasn't a total loss.