“Confessions of a Spelling Bee Burnout,” by Brent Hearn

Nov 7th, 2018 | By | Category: Fake Nonfiction, Prose

Tonight, on the eve of my third national spelling bee, I can’t help but wonder what it’s all been for.

I’m 11 years old and I’m over the hill. This year, a five-year-old girl qualified for the national bee. Five. Years. Old. You’ve got to wonder what losing to a toddler does to a promising young mental athlete.

Just imagine: You have your whole future ahead of you, and it’s looking pretty sweet. Ivy League schools already have your number on speed dial. The earth is your bivalve, and then you get to watch your dreams turn to ash when you stumble over some simple word you’ve spelled correctly umpteen times in training, only to be followed by some precocious preschool prodigy who doesn’t even know she’s supposed to be nervous just killing it with “chiaroscurist” or “gallimaufry” or some such shit.

I want to quit before the game passes me by.

I’ve been in training since I was seven. I’ve wasted a third of my life on this sport. And for what? What am I going to do? Go pro? This is pro. There’s nothing after this. First-place prize money will barely cover a year’s tuition at a decent private university. Not like it matters. I’m practically guaranteed a full ride at most schools anyway. The whole thing is a joke.

When I think of all the time I’ve squandered—prime years of my intellectual development that could have been spent on worthier pursuits like futures trading or becoming a chess grandmaster or (and yes, I know how passé this) even founding a tech startup, anything, really, other than reciting letters like a trained monkey—it turns my stomach.

One girl I know—I’ll call her Anika—saw the writing on the wall and got out early. She retired at nine and taught herself to compose. She’s written two symphonies and a shit-ton of jingles for major brands in the couple of years since. Artistic satisfaction and commercial success? What the hell else can you ask for out of life?

And me? What have I done? I can spell really well. Know what else can spell really well? The autocorrect on any generic POS cell phone. I—along with a staggering number of other promising young minds in this country—have spent thousands upon thousands of hours and untold intellectual capital perfecting a skill that nobody needs. Spelling bee competitors are the beeper repairmen of the middle school set.

I know another kid—I won’t mention his name, but he’s a former world champion—who didn’t know when to quit. He’s 15 and still slinging syllables in underground bees in Bangkok. Parking garages, backyards, abandoned office buildings…he’ll spell wherever he can make enough scratch to pay for a cup of noodles and his Mensa dues. Why? Because spelling is all he knows. I don’t want that to happen to me. I want to get out while there’s still time.

I know what you’re thinking: Why don’t you just quit? Why not just walk away? It’s not parental pressure if that’s what you’re thinking. Gary and Linda would be just as supportive if I played soccer or chess or video games or whatever the hell it is other kids do, as long as I enjoyed it.

I’m lucky in that respect; it’s not like that for a lot of my opponents. You ever see a mom feed her kid Adderall from a PEZ dispenser before a bee? I have. “Don’t screw this up and we’ll let you pick the Holocaust documentary we watch at your birthday party.” That’s what she said. Got up in his face and whispered it to him right before he walked on. She was smiling the whole time. Shit was dark.

Truth is, I still do it because some part of me still enjoys it. I do it because for all the onanistic bullshit that befouls the spelling bee game, there’s something pure about that moment after the word is announced, right before I start to spell it. I still get a little bit of a rush. The instant that goes away—the very first time I spell a word sans butterflies and buzz—I’m finished.

But for now, it’s time for bed. That five-year-old’s not gonna make herself cry tomorrow, now is she?


When he’s not slinging syllables at his day job as a writer for a tabletop gaming studio, Brent Hearn writes plays, fiction, and comedy. This is his second piece for Defenestration, and he recently had work published in Drunk Monkeys. If you’re interested in staging one of his plays or having him ruin your next event with an inappropriate reading, drop him a line on Twitter or Instagram (@sydekix). You’d be amazed what he’ll do for a few bucks and some quality baked goods.

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