I live for spelling bees.

I only participated in one when I was a kid, but I remember relishing the thrill of competition. I’m also a fairly good speller (except for the word dilemma) and would greatly appreciate it if my children would join me in that vital pursuit.

Last year was Ali’s first round of spelling bees. We have a school spelling bee (just our homeschool cover school), and then the Birmingham District Homeschooling spelling bee. In Ali’s first ever spelling bee as a third grader (spelling bees are for 1-8th grade – so clearly I forgot what I lived for two years in a row), she placed 1st in her grade and 4th in the school and was elated at her achievement, even though she was one spot away from a cash prize. She decided she wanted to work even harder for the district bee, truly hoping to grab a cash prize. But alas, the district spelling bee’s Round One started in words past where we’d studied, and so she was out on round one, along with over half the kids that participated.

As soon as the spelling sheets came out for this school year, we began studying. We made it through all 450 words a few times through before the first bee, challenging my pronunciation abilities and forcing me to use the audio feature of dictionary.com to learn words such as a posteriori, recherche, netsuke (pronounced netskee), and more. And then there were the long words that were a delight to say, such as prestidigitation and supererogation. We loosely knew them all, but alas – Ali was self-admittedly too confident as a mature 4th grader, and spelled out of the school spelling bee at 5th place.

We trudged through the holidays, spelling and re-spelling reveille and sanctum sanctorum, in preparation for the district bee. I wasn’t super confident in her readiness for the harder spelling bee, but I encouraged her to go slow, picture the word in her head, and GO SLOW. The district bee was important, after all. The winners of that bee progressed toward Nationals.

The top three winners of the district bee get to go to the “Homeschool County” bee – there are 67 counties in Alabama, but homeschoolers don’t get to compete in their county bee – they all get thrown into the same pot called Homeschool County, then winners of the 67 real counties and the one imaginary Homeschool County compete against each other in the State Bee. I enjoy imagining what Homeschool County is like, and often find myself daydreaming about it…the stores lining the streets would include Denim Jumpers R Us and Minivan Superstore, the “playgrounds” would just be circular seating arrangements of children reciting the U.S. constitution in Latin, and all food inside county boundaries would be required to be gluten free and devoid of any devilish red dye.

(But I digress.)

My heart began beating heavily as soon as we entered the room for the district bee. My hands were shaking. I decided I needed to busy them so as to not take on more nervousness on behalf of my daughter. So I took her picture.

IMG_3905She unwittingly chose the only long skirt she had – it was SO Homeschool County of her. The sequins on her shirt, however, would definitely get her thrown into Homeschool County Jail. Where she could keep me company during my incarceration for having purple hair.

According to the seating arrangement, Ali was the third to last speller, and since I couldn’t take pictures of her to busy myself, I decided I’d write down every word used, match them against our study sheets, and see if all the words did indeed come from the 450 we tried our best to memorize. There had also been extra sheets of challenge words – some we’d briefly gone over – but 450 words is really an undertaking. Who has time to look at a dozen more sheets?

I began writing with each student, and then texting updates to Chris and a couple other friends waiting with bated breath (or wishing I’d quit texting them.) I created a system – dots on the left meant the student got the word wrong and was therefore out. I put Ali’s word in a square, and dots on the right meant the word had a homonym and therefore had its definition read with the word (during the last spelling bee, we the spectators had played “Who can figure out what the homonym is?” – a game that is harder than you might imagine.)


Thankfully, the moderator started with much easier words this year. As soon as the first word was read, Ali looked back at me and smiled. There would be no Round One elimination for her this year.

The rounds kept going and Ali continued to spell correctly.

Round 7 was the frightening round – the one where the moderators took a minute to discuss amongst themselves, then shuffle papers – I knew they were going off-script. We had finished with the word list and were headed into uncharted territories.

With each new unstudied word, I just knew Ali would be out.

But then she spelled tortilla and popularity. My heart burst with spelling pride.


There were only five students left by round 9, and Ali was giving then word “Hogan”, except that it was pronounced “hog-on”, and I didn’t even know how to spell it. Surely this would be the end. Ali paused, having no idea what a Hogan was (nor did I), and wisely asked for a definition.

“a Navajo Indian dwelling constructed of earth and branches and covered with mud or sod. It can also be pronounced ‘hogan.’”

Oh, this was the breakthrough Ali needed. Would she opt for guessing “hogan” or “hogon”?

She went with Hogan. And was right.

She made it through round 10, miraculously spelling acronym.

The field was now down to 4 – it started at 29 spellers. This was crazy. She was on a roll.

Then she was given the word Desperado.

She’d never heard it before, and after a moment of thinking, she spelled it desperoto.

She was out, officially 4th place, just two rounds before the bee was over.


She and I were both shocked and excited that she’d made it so far, and not at all disappointed that we didn’t get to visit the magical land of Homeschool County as the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place finishers did. We quickly decided that 4th place was “The first place of No More Studying”, and celebrated by car-dancing to Spotify on the way home – something that’s surely not allowed in Homeschool County.


And, for what it’s worth, when it comes to Desperado, Ali and I unanimously concur that Rihanna does it best.

10 thoughts on “Desperado.

  1. Ali did a wonderful job! I remember my last spelling bee, I went in too cocky and misspelled the word “curious”. It should have been easy, It was 5th grade, I was testing at a high school reading level, and yet my concentration drifted far down the road by the time they got to me. I will never forget the word, and I can’t say I have ever spelled it incorrectly again. We live and we learn, and Ali is obviously getting a wonderful education. Stay strong, little desperado! :)

  2. I easily won my class spelling bee in 4th and 5th grade. But in each grade spelling bee, I lost on my first word because I wouldn’t slow down to think. 4: secret, but I spelled it s-e-r-c-e-t. And then 5th was really embarrassing I spelled daisy d-i-a-s-y…and it was my grandmother’s name! I cannot even imagine some of the words you listed for Ali’s list!!! Wow! Congrats Ali!!!!

  3. Wow! Congrats, Ali! AJ won her school bee and made it to the city bee – she had the 450 word list but in later rounds they went on to the other (online) lists – 1100 words or so? AJ lost on the word “croon,” which she had never heard before, although she spelled crustacean and knew a posteriori very well by that point. Maybe our girls will meet up in the district bee next year!

  4. Congratulations to Ali!
    Years ago my sister made it to the nationals of the Association of Christian Schools spelling bee, and I remember her studying the dictionary to prepare for it! (She made it to 5th place.)

    I help run the Scripps National Spelling bee at the school I teach at, and I always laugh at how many words they say are homonyms, especially for the younger grades – so many of them are words the students wouldn’t even know!

  5. Great job, Ali! I was in public school at the time, but I still remember the word that got me out on the spelling bee: gazelle. Every time I hear that word now (or watch a nature documentary…those poor gazelles are always getting the short end of the stick), I feel a little sad for my grade school self. *sigh*

    I’m not sure my 4th grader would do too well in a spelling bee. He’s such a visual person, I think he’d need to write it down.

  6. Wow I’m impressed! K is struggling with the regular old 4th grade spelling list. :P I’m not a good speller and unfortunately she seems inclined to bad spelling as well. Congratulations to Ali on 4th place! And even more to no more studying! :)

  7. I got 2nd place at a spelling bee for spelling something correctly — but the Canadian way! One of those words that has an s or z depending on where you’re from. I had only seen it once, apparently in a book by a Canadian.

    To this day, I am still bitter. Stupid maple syrup.

    1. Ugh! We had many “alternate” spellings that were acceptable, and many were the Canadian or British versions (I think.) Maybe it’s The Whitney Law – all English-speaking country’s spellings must now be accepted.

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