Thursday, May 31, 2007

"I GAVE IT THE BEST SHOT I COULD": While we're waiting for prime time, I wanted to share something from the Comments that you may have missed. Rafael Noboa, who's been active in the threads, placed fourth in the 1991 Bee. Here's what he has to say about it:
I moved to the U.S. in 1985, from Puerto Rico; my first language wasn't English, it was Spanish. My family moved to New Haven, where I competed in my first spelling bee a year later (in Spanish). From New Haven, we moved to Granville, OH, where I ended up spending the rest of my childhood.

Anyway, I competed in bees all through middle school, but I never even won a classroom bee until my 8th-grade year. I won that one, then I won the school bee, then I won the Columbus Dispatch regional bee to punch a ticket to nationals. I guess I got on a streak.

I didn't really start preparing or practicing until I made it to nationals. I know that sounds strange, but it's true. I'd practiced like crazy all the other times, and it didn't work out, so I figured, why mess with success? When my dad and I started prepping for the bee, we didn't engage in rote memorization so much as we played with words, studied what they meant, learned where they came from. To this day, I think the reason I've got such a large vocabulary comes from the preparation that I engaged in in the spring of 1991.

I practiced about 2 hours a day, sometimes more, but not much more than that. Bee prep had to be squeezed in with my violin practice, and my parents actually took that more seriously. The attitude that my parents had was, if you practice spelling, that's great, and if you don't, that's on you.

This caused a rather sudden shock when I made it to DC. I distinctly remember that lots of my fellow spellers (and their parents!) were really, really, really intense about this. That intensity just weirded me out.

Now, this is 1991, so, to my memory, the bee just wasn't a big deal. I mean, it was a big deal to me, but it's nothing like what it is now. We were all in the ballroom of the Capital Hilton (don't know if that's where it still happens), but everyone wore their own clothes. You didn't have a uniform like you have now. I remember that I wore my "lucky" sweater (the one that I wore when I won in Columbus, and in school).

I don't remember there being a written test. I remember there were something like 100-150 of us, and the whole competition was spoken. There definitely weren't any international spellers--every speller was from either a state or a territory.

I wasn't nervous at all--until the fourth round. I think the word I had was autochtonous, and I totally guessed on it. I steeled myself for the bell to ring, and when it didn't, I did a little fist pump. After that, I was fine, even when I misspelled my final word--plutogoguery, which I spelled plutogogary. I knew how to spell it, too -- I was tired, and I wasn't concentrating. So the bell rang. I sighed, then I went to the reader's table and shook his hand. I remember there was a lot of applause. I headed to the kiss-and-cry room after that.

When I got there, I noticed that there were a lot of spellers crying, people yelling, that sort of thing. I didn't. I guess the overwhelming feeling I had was relief, because it was all over. I was sad, because I wanted to win--I'm a really competitive person--but my relief at finally being able to relax outweighed that sadness. My mom and dad and my sponsor met me there. They were all expecting me to be upset, so I shocked them when they saw that I wasn't. They kept on asking me if I was okay, and I kept on telling them that I was fine -- I gave it the best shot I could.

Afterwards, I went back out to the ballroom, and saw Joanne (the '91 champion) and the runner-up go toe-to-toe for like an hour. That's the only time I kicked myself, because that's when it really sunk in that I could've won.

And now?

Well, in a way, I'm glad I didn't win. I look at the profiles that Time did of the winners between '86 and '92 (congrats, Amanda!), and I look at what they've accomplished. Joanne is studing neo-natology. Amanda's a lawyer, as are others.

Me, I'm just now finishing my bachelor's. I went to school, dropped out, joined the Army, went to war in Iraq, and I'm working in politics, doing what I love. I feel like I've accomplished a lot in my life, but if I had won in '91, and Time had profiled me, I get the feeling that people would have said, "he peaked at age 14", when I don't feel that's the case at all. I feel like I'm hitting my stride now, at age 30.

As for the bee ... I'm glad I competed. I really don't keep in touch with anyone, except for a couple of folks. That's not by choice -- if I could, I would. I just don't have their contact information.

No one I work with, and none of my friends -- not even my ex-wife--knows I competed in the bee. It's my little secret. I don't see it as germane to any conversation I have. People think I'm a good writer and have a big vocabulary because I read a lot (which I always have). I'm a good writer and I have an extensive vocabulary because I had a chance to go to the bee, and I took advantage of it.

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