DC widow blogger Marjorie Brimley hugs her daughter Claire
New Perspectives

The Spelling Bee

“The word is ‘universe,’” the judge said clearly.

Claire took a deep breath.  “Universe.  U….n…i…” she paused for a second, and then started drawing the letters in the air.  “V….e…r…s…e.  Universe.”

“That’s correct,” the judge said.  Claire smiled, and walked quickly back to her seat.

I waved at her as she sat down and she gave me a big smile.  She’d made it through round 2 of her school’s spelling bee. 

I didn’t sign Claire up for the spelling bee.  I think she told me about it a month ago, but I promptly forgot.  I mean, like I need one more thing to worry about.  But then the day before the spelling bee, she came home and announced that she had signed herself up for the spelling bee and I needed to send an email to the teacher who was organizing it, giving my permission for her to do it.

It wasn’t the first time that Claire has done something like this.  Earlier in the year, she told me that she had been playing basketball at recess every day and she planned to try out for the school team.  “You have to sign me up for tryouts,” she announced.

I did, and she spent a few weeks practicing before the big day.  When she was done with the tryouts, I asked her how she did.  “There were other kids who were better than me, but I tried my best,” she said.

I liked her attitude.  So did the coaches, I’m sure.  But she didn’t make the team.

She was sad about this.  I think she even said something like, “Oh, that makes me sad!”  But I made her sleep on it and go to school the next morning and she came home and announced that she was going to keep practicing and try out the next year.

A few weeks later, a spot in a rec league came open, and she joined a team with a lot of girls from her school.  At the first game, she scored the first point and was so excited.  She really didn’t know what she was doing, but she was certainly happy to be part of the group.  “The referee called me ‘cha-cha’ because sometimes I dance with the ball instead of dribbling it,” she said to me after that first game.  I made a face and she laughed.  “I have to remember to dribble the ball!”

I have to give it to her, I was impressed how easily could take a little light-hearted teasing, especially after she didn’t make the first basketball team.

But that’s my Claire.  She’s always been a pretty happy and confident kid, but this level of resiliency is somewhat new.

Take the musical.  Her school had tryouts, and then call-backs for some of the coveted roles.  Claire did not get a call-back.  Instead, she got a role in the ensemble – a role that everyone who tries out gets.  She was not deterred.  After her first practice, she announced to me that she was going to try out for some of the extra dances that members of the ensemble do throughout the show.

“I am so excited for the musical!” Claire said.  Then she went on to talk about how happy she was that some of her fifth grade friends got the lead roles.

So when I was watching her at the spelling bee last week, I wasn’t worried.  She hadn’t practiced much, and there were plenty of kids there who had.  I knew she wasn’t going to win.  She got through round 3, and then at round 4, she got the word, “irked.”

“Can you please repeat that word?” Claire asked.

“Irked,” the judge said.

“Irked. E….r….c….k….e….d. Irked.” Claire said.

“I’m sorry, that’s incorrect,” the judge said.  Claire stood there and listened to the correct spelling and then walked down the stage and joined her friends.  As she sat down, she turned around, waved at me and then gave me a little smile and a shrug of her shoulders.

I waved back and gave her a big smile.

About half the kids were out at that point, and some of them were really sad when that happened.  Claire tried to high-five a few of them when she saw they were upset.  But mostly, she sat there and cheered on her friends.  Two kids from her grade made it to the top three, and I could see how excited she was for them.

When it was over, she came over to me and I hugged her and we walked to the car.  “I’m so proud of you,” I said.

“I made it to the fourth round!” she said. 

“Yes, that was great,” I said, “but I’m more proud of you for how you did when you didn’t win.”

“Lots of kids cried,” she said.

“Yes,” I said, “and that’s okay.  Sometimes we feel sad when things don’t go well.  I’m proud of you, but not because you didn’t cry.  I’m proud of you because you tried something hard. I’m proud of you because throughout the whole spelling bee, you kept cheering on your friends.  I’m proud of you because when you got the word wrong, you took a deep breath and had a great attitude.”

I wanted to say that she was the picture of resilience, not just with basketball and the musical and the spelling bee, but in life.  I know she’s not a perfect kid (trust me, she almost made me lose my damn mind last weekend and she often whines much more than she should) but there’s so much I admire in her. She’s taken more than a few punches in her less-than-ten years on earth, and yet there she was that night, still standing.  A survivor.  And a smiling one at that.

She looked at me, and I continued, “I’m proud of you because you didn’t win, and you knew it wasn’t the end of the world.”

“Mom,” she said, with a tween-like look in her eyes, “it’s a spelling bee.” 

My girl.  I don’t want her to have this level of resilience. I want her to cry or stamp her feet over a lost spelling bee or a missed part in the musical or being cut from the basketball team, because that’s a normal reaction of a fourth grader. But she won’t. She won’t because she’s seen much worse, and if there’s a positive outcome from the past year, it’s that more often than not, my kid can differentiate between real hardship and simple setbacks.

I wish this wasn’t the case. But it is.

So when Claire came to me after the spelling bee and hugged me tight, my heart almost overflowed. I swear, I think I was more proud of her that night that the parents of the kid that actually won the spelling bee.

Image Credit: Stefanie Harrington Photography.


  • Anne

    Yes! I love this story. It puts a little patch on your heart when you see your child show strength and resilience that’s different from their peers. My Clare is 22, has lived 10 years without her dad, is graduating college in a few months and entering the world of book publishing in NYC. Makes me proud thinking about it, a little patch on my heart.

    • Marjorie

      It’s hard to imagine my own kids grown, but that’s what I hope for them too – to be able to go out and face the world with their head up. Congrats – your Clare sounds like a real success story!

  • Christine

    This was a great night and testament to your parenting, Marjorie, to see her reaction – you are so right to focus on this aspect!

  • Erin

    Claire is such an exceptional kid – always has been! I remember when she was little and all the kids would be playing – she was consistently thoughtful and kind towards others. (Like her mama!)
    Happy to share and she could always play well with any type of kid – she adapted so well like that. Loved reading this story – thanks for sharing Marjorie❤️

  • Tammy

    Claire sounds very much like my daughter. She always seemed stoic and, though I was concerned in her lack of competitiveness, I was proud of her ability to put everything into a logical perspective far beyond what could be expected at an early age. I am not sure if it is due to their experiences but rather their resilience has allowed them to deal with those experiences. They are fortunate to be born with a reasonable outlook, something I see in only a few of her peers. My daughter is now 17, surrounded by likeminded girls and thriving. This gift your daughter was given will serve her well and she will teach you so many more lessons. Giant hugs xo

    • Marjorie

      Oh, I love this. I so hope this is the life trajectory that my daughter follows – all I want is for her to remain secure and to thrive. Congrats on having a daughter who turned out so well despite some tough life circumstances.