The Spelling Bee

9 Feb

And we know that to them that love God, all things work together unto good, to such as, according to his purpose, are called to be saints (St. Paul).


My Nicky is in the third grade at a tough parish school, and yet, even with some learning delays associated with his Down syndrome, he’s holding his own.

As evidence of this, I’m proud to report that Nick secured a spot in the school spelling bee recently – he’s always been a great reader and a pretty good speller. In preparation for the bee, Nick reviewed and drilled and boned up on words as best he could. He was very excited about appearing in the contest, and he wanted to do us all proud.

The day of the competition arrived, and I dropped him off at school along with his siblings. “Mr. Becker, you know the spelling bee is today,” the third grade teacher reminded me. “And Nicholas is competing.” I let her know I remembered, but that I couldn’t make it – I’d be teaching my own class at the same time. Even so, I assured her I’d be keeping him in my thoughts and prayers. “Your dad will be thinking of you,” she repeated to Nick. He gave me his trademark mischievous grin and wink, and headed into class. I left for work.

Later, my wife gave me the lowdown on how it turned out: Not as well as we’d hoped. It started alright, for when Nick’s name was called, the audience let loose a volley of cheers and clapping – he’s well loved at his school, and plenty of those in attendance recognized the significance of his even making to the bee at all.

Then the audience hushed, Nick approached the microphone, his first word was read aloud to him…and he misspelled it. I’m told that he was bewildered after his mistake, and he didn’t quite understand that he was already out of the running. The high energy and the crowd, the anticipation and the microphone – it all contributed to his confusion, and he froze onstage. Nick didn’t know what to do next; it seems that nobody else did either.

Except Cecilia, Nick’s sixth-grade sister. Cecilia was also competing in the spelling bee that day, and she saw right away that Nicky was a bit lost. Now, I don’t want to overstate this, especially since I wasn’t there, but I had a number of school parents tell me about it. Without any prompting, and without asking leave of the teachers in charge, Cecilia motioned to Nick and helped him get off the stage gracefully. Her assistance only took a moment, but apparently it was enough to rattle her usual poise, and Cecilia missed her first, relatively simple word as well.

So, ready for some mawkish moralism about Nick and Cecilia being the real winners, despite their losses onstage – that every participant was a winner, and every child “above average,” à la Lake Wobegon? Naah, none of that. Nick lost. Cecilia lost. On the first round, both of them. It was painful, but they lost, and there’s no way to sugarcoat it. Hopefully they’ll do better next year.

But here’s the thing: Without Nick’s mistake, Cecilia wouldn’t have had the opportunity to respond the way she did – selflessly, unselfconsciously, generously. It was a tiny epiphany of love – Nick’s innocence and Cecilia’s magnanimity on display for all to see. It was like an object lesson in how God doesn’t waste anything, not even our mistakes.

And I missed it. Hopefully I’ll do better next year as well.

7 Responses to “The Spelling Bee”

  1. Marcia at 11:47 am #

    Aww, I loved this, Rick!

  2. Emily at 5:54 pm #

    Aw this is so sweet! It was really encouraging. Thanks Uncle Rick!

  3. kathy ratkiewicz at 11:02 am #

    Great post, Rick. Pretty fitting that Nick’s picture in the Ds group calendar for this year is next to the quote, “When we do the best that we can, we never know what miracle is wrought in our own life, or in the lives of others.” Helen Keller


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