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Spelling Bee.

It’s very, very rare that I will repurpose or republish a post I’ve already written but in this case, a post I wrote back in 2009 couldn’t be a more perfect lead-in to tell you about the Drury Lane production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”, which I was invited to check out, on the house, on opening night. I’ll tell you just a little bit about the show after you read (or reread!) the story of my very own spelling bee nightmare.

I’ve always been a great speller. As a kid, being able to spell what I thought was a difficult word made me walk with my head held a little higher, and I loved when people told me how smart I was (who wouldn’t?). But I was small potatoes, really, when it came to spelling. Growing up, I always admired the kids in my school who walked around with the study guides for the big spelling bees. I always thought it would have been so FUN to be crowned the National Spelling Champion.

Unfortunately, classroom spelling bees that led to the school-wide spelling bees, which led to the district-wide spelling bees, which led to the state-wide spelling bees, which led to the National Spelling Bee, only came once a year, and though I usually made it pretty far in the rounds, I was never the last girl standing.

In eighth grade, my teacher announced that the spelling bee was coming up, and handed out a list of words to study. I was excited. I studied, though honestly I thought the words on the classroom study guide were quite easy. None of my friends seemed as thrilled to prepare for the bee as I, so I worked alone.

Finally, the big day arrived. I was going to win that sucker. In my head, I saw myself win not only the classroom bee, but each bee after that, and I saw myself wearing the number on my shirt in the National bee. I saw myself winning the National bee, holding the trophy while my parents hugged me and cried tears of joy.

Our entire class of about 25 kids lined up around the room for the first round. “SO easy!” I thought, as the teacher called out words to each person down the line. By the time she got to me, only one or two students had been incorrect. (Round one tends to be a gimme, kind of like the first few questions on “Who Wants to be a Millionnaire?”)

My turn.

My teacher gave me my word, and I nearly jumped for joy. The word? Cactus.

I barely even had to think about it. Could there BE an easier word to spell?

I thought not.

I stood up straight, looked out over my teacher’s head into the bright stage lights I was imagining (you know, the lights that were right in front of the news cameras and such).

“Cactus,” I said.

C-A-T-U-S. Cactus.”

And then I gave my teacher a dazzling smile, so proud of myself.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “that is incorrect.”


I started to sweat as I made my way back to my desk, head hanging low, heart pounding. I figured out what I had done by the time I sat down, and it was all I could do to keep from crying. As I sat there for what seemed like forever as the spelling bee went on…and on…and on…and on, I mentally kicked my own ass.

That moment in time? Feels like yesterday. For a woman in her forties, I think about it pretty often. It’s not that I’m still beating myself up over it, but it’s one of those really annoying life moments. It taught me a lesson, though. Confidence is good, but you’ve got to keep it in check or the size of your head becomes too big for your brain to fit properly. Or something like that.

Although I remained a strong speller, I lost interest in the trophy after that. But as an adult, if I see that the National Spelling Bee is on TV, I watch. And sometimes I allow myself to picture in my mind’s eye that eighth grade Melisa, number on her shirt, trophy in hand, my husband and kids hugging me while crying tears of joy.

I know without a doubt that my cactus misstep is the reason I’ve wanted to see “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” since it started its Broadway run in 2005, so when I was offered two complimentary tickets to see it at Drury Lane last night, I jumped on that faster than you can spell Y-E-S!


From the press release:
THE 25th ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE is the uproarious story of six overachieving and quirky adolescents pitted against each other in the spelling challenge of a lifetime. The show brilliantly integrates an element of improvisation into each performance as audience members are chosen at random every night to participate in the bee along with the show’s characters, allowing the excitement and humor of a spelling bee to be experienced through the thoughts, emotions, and tribulations of the young competitors. SPELLING BEE is a satire with heart that teaches the characters and audience alike that winning isn’t everything and losing doesn’t necessarily make you a loser.

From me:
The hostess of the spelling bee was out in the audience before the show started, asking if there were any “fans of competitive spelling over here?” and expressing how stressful it is for these kids, who were just there to “spell their hearts out”. Having that interaction, as well as watching the in-character janitors prepare the gym setting for the bee while everyone was getting seated gave us a good idea of what was to come: lots of fun.

By the way, the music that played as the audience loaded in and during intermission was a playlist full of songs that contained spelled-out words (Aretha Franklin’s “Respect”, The Jackson Five’s “ABC”, etc.). As someone who makes playlists all the time–and takes special pride in our pre-show, themed playlist for LISTEN TO YOUR MOTHER CHICAGO–I appreciated this music immensely, so much that I had to write a paragraph about it, I guess!

The show itself was hysterical. The characters were all unique and relatable. (Fun fact: Jesse Tyler Ferguson, who plays Mitchell on “Modern Family”, got his break playing Leaf Coneybear in the original Broadway cast.) It was everything I thought it would be, and I would go see it again tomorrow.

SPELLING BEE-Zach Colonna and Cast

(Photo courtesy of Drury Lane.)

If you’re in the Chicago area, check it out. The performance schedule is as follows: Wednesdays at 1:30 p.m. ($40), Thursdays at 1:30 p.m. ($40) and 8 p.m. ($45), Fridays at 8 p.m. ($50), Saturdays at 5 p.m. ($50), and 8:30 p.m. ($50), and Sundays at 2 p.m. ($50), and 6 p.m. ($45). Lunch and dinner theatre packages are available. Student group tickets start as low as $30 and Senior Citizens start at $35 for matinees and $50 for a matinee luncheon package. For reservations, call the Drury Lane Theatre box office at 630.530.0111, call TicketMaster at 800.745.3000 or visit www.drurylane.com.

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  • Sylvia Joy June 28, 2014, 7:36 pm

    Ok, loved this story. I don’t always remember things that happened a while ago. Do you remember that you were in a special 3rd grade reading class when you where in kindergarten? I still think that Sesame Street and your Dad loving reading had a lot to do with that. You loved to read which has never been my favorite thing to do I liked working with my hands.
    Love Grandma W