I lost to a girl! by
(7 Stories)

Prompted By Spelling

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I entered fourth grade after we moved to Phoenix in 1958. As the school year went by, it came time for the Spelling Bee. There were four fourth grade classes, each with 30 or more students – Baby Boom! Each class held its own Spelling Bee, with the winners advancing to the school Bee, and on up the line. I was a good speller, as my mother NEVER let a misspelled word slip by her. I had not missed one word in a spelling test (weekly) for the entire year.

How multi-generational Worths lost their Spelling Bees!

So I was pretty confident that I could do well. I, and as far as I know, no one else studied words prior to the class  Bee. As the Bee progressed, I did well. The words were all familiar and easy. Nothing like we see on the televised National Spelling Bee finals!

As we progressed, I ended up in the final two, with my classmate Joan P. She was a tall, dark-haired beauty who was very smart. She was also at least a foot taller than I, who only reached his not-so-high final height well into high school. Joan and I went back and forth for quite a few words, until I was given “beautiful.” Not sure why, but I choked and misspelled that easy word, transposing the vowels. So BOOM – Joan won. I was crushed to get beaten by a girl. Remember – this was a long time ago, both in years and culture, so please don’t judge my fourth-grade self. And believe, me, every time I need to write or spell “beautiful,” my brain goes e-a-u to make sure I don’t misspell it again!

So after my own Spelling Bee setback, fast forward to my oldest daughter’s Spelling Bee career… I may have mentioned her before, but she graduated (commenced?) Summa in Philosophy at Harvard, was a Rhodes Scholar, and got her J.D. at Yale Law. She’s actually one of the two smartest people I’ve met in my life, and has an almost photographic memory. She is also by nature and birth order an achiever. Everything she undertook she needed to win. When she had her own first Spelling Bee, she breezed through her class and school Bees on top. She studied the “book of words” assiduously, and dragooned me into testing her nightly with words from the book. At the county Spelling Bee, she was doing well, until she was given the word “wahine,” which she misspelled. She was really upset. when I showed her the word in the book, she exclaimed, “But I knew that word, but thought ti was pronounced wa-hin, with a long “i.” It turns out that her study did not include pronouncing the words! She was so traumatized by this, she refused to study much next year, and during the school Bee, she missed a very easy word. I KNEW there was something wrong. When she returned to us, I asked her if she had missed the word on purpose. She admitted that she had. When asked, Why,” she replied that she hated the pressure that the Bee put on her. Of course, this was self-applied pressure. But she and we learned a good lesson from this. And she never entered another Spelling Bee.

To this day, when she mistakes or mispronounces a word, I’ll say,” OK, wa-hine!”.

Spelling bees have not been kind to the Worths!

Profile photo of Joe Worth Joe Worth

Characterizations: funny, well written


  1. As a former spelling bee participant, I enjoy every personal story like this, especially when it includes details such as which words got someone out of the bee. This narrative kept me fully engaged.
    i wondered, however, if you noticed the resonance between your description of your rival Joan as a “beauty” and the word that tripped you up! You could have described her as attractive or good-looking, but no, the word you selected as you went to retell this tale was “beauty.” Hmmm.

  2. Suzy says:

    Great story, Joe! So sorry you went down on the word beautiful, thus losing to a beautiful opponent. In 4th grade did you actually think she was beautiful, or did you think she had cooties? (cootiful?) Or both? And your brilliant daughter, getting tripped up on a Hawaiian word because she didn’t know how it was pronounced – it doesn’t seem fair. But I like that you call her a wahine to this day!

    • Joe Worth says:

      Good question, Suzy!

      It was a long time ago, but my memory was that I admired her “from afar.” I think I suffered from the usual young (any age?) male fear of rejection in approaching very attractive females. I knew my fear was justified when I asked the most attractive girl in my high school freshman class for a date. She turned me down straightforwardly, but thankfully politely, and explained that she was dating a senior football player. Ouch!

  3. Marian says:

    Really liked this, Joe, as a multigenerational take on spelling bees. Your losing to a girl and how you took it was a product of the times.

  4. Betsy Pfau says:

    As a petite girl from about the same era, I understand your feelings about losing to that tall, dark beauty. And now having the word seared into your brain, carefully spelling it before writing it all the time. I get it!

    Wonderful commentary on your accomplished daughter, too. I was about to write about tricky English-language pronunciations, but of course, wahine isn’t English! It is true, no one needs the pressure of the spelling bee, whether self-imposed, or felt by being in the community, so your daughter made the best decision for her. She, clearly, had many other ways to show her talents. Lucky her, lucky you.

  5. Laurie Levy says:

    Great story, Joe. I never will understand why kids subject themselves to the pressure of national spelling bees. I agree with Dale that perhaps your beautiful 4th grade opponent somehow scrambled that word in your mind.

  6. Wonderful story, Joe! I also noticed that correlation between your description of your opponent and the word you misspelled. (Might that be considered a Freudian slip?)

    I’m torn on the subject of spelling bees. As a rule, I’m against them as a form of competition. In fact, when my daughter was in grade school, she advanced in the national spelling bee sponsored by the American Heart Association (I specifically remember o-x-y-g-e-n), even though I was actually trying to dissuade her, worried about the effects of losing. I didn’t want her to turn against spelling. Instead, she persevered and won at one tier after another until eventually becoming a runner-up in the finals and getting to meet Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, even having their photo published in the newspaper. Her experience tempered my bias against competition in general, but I wonder if spelling bees may ultimately do more harm than good…for those who lose.

  7. Good storytelling, Joe. I also noticed that the word ‘beautiful’ tripped you up just when you were thinking of that beautiful girl!
    I thought you were going to say something about being flustered by being given that word; embarrassed that maybe they had noticed, somehow, that you were thinking she was beautiful, and thus were thrown off your game. Haha.
    My father told me I could be anything I wanted in the world, but that I should never beat a boy at bowling. That probably would have gone for spelling bees, too!

  8. Thanx for the story and the honesty Joe, and brava to your daughter for taking herself out of a stressful situation.

    There’s some stress we can’t avoid, so best to avoid what we can!

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