Studying words is a pleasure in itself


It all came down to sarsaparilla.

Definition: Any number of tropical American, spiny, woody vines of the lily family, with large, fragrant roots and toothed, heart-shaped leaves.

Language of origin: Spanish.

It was a word that my son knew how to spell, but when he was asked to spell it Saturday during the Washington County Spelling Bee, he left out the second "a."

Four years of studying 20 to 25 words a night. Writing each incorrect word three times each. Trips to district and regional competitions to prepare for this one opportunity to qualify for the National Spelling Bee. Lost with one letter.


Because he had won his grade-level competition two years in a row, the pressure he felt coming into Saturday's bee was intense. Nerves took over.

He lost in a fair competition. We salute the winner, Jessica Swarner, and wish her all the best in the national competition.

Since Saturday, some people have asked how Tristan is doing. Most people have avoided talking with us about it. I don't blame them. What do you say?

There are those who would say we spent too much time studying the dictionary. But I never viewed the time we spent together as solely a means to an end. Our study of the English language wasn't just to win a contest, although that certainly was a motivating factor.

Our study of spellings, word origins and pronunciations was an activity we truly enjoyed. It was something we looked forward to each night. My son would come to me and ask, "Are you ready to call out spelling words, Mom?"

I'd go to his room. We'd look up words we didn't know, laugh about silly-sounding pronunciations and talk about why certain words are spelled the way they are. That time we spent together will always be a treasure to me.

Most competitions for children originally were designed to encourage family togetherness. Unfortunately, sometimes parents turn into drill sergeants, demanding performance rather than enjoying the journey.

As we were straightening the kitchen Saturday night, my son saw his spelling-practice book and said, "Ah, no spelling words tonight." There was sadness in his voice, but also some relief.

My mind drifted back to a few hours earlier.

After spelling sputnik, amicable, gourami, pasteurize and facetious correctly, my son hesitated on narcissistic. He took his finger and traced the letters on his hand. He started to spell the word, got to the third "s" and then asked to start over again. Spellers are allowed to do this as long as they do not change any letters that they've already said.

As he spelled the word a second time, it was evident that he was becoming very uncomfortable. (He spelled narcissistic correctly, but later told me that it seemed as if all the blood in his body had rushed to his head.)

That's when my focus shifted from the word he was spelling to concentrate on him. At that moment, my role as spelling coach faded.

The words I shared with him the previous week came back, "Life as you know it will not change, regardless of whether you win or lose." And it hasn't. He came home Saturday, kicked around his soccer ball and played with his dog.

My family's faith teaches us to rejoice with those who rejoice. Jessica, we rejoice in your victory and the opportunity that you have to participate in the National Spelling Bee May 26 to 28 in Washington, D.C.

While you're there, spell one for Tristan and all the other eighth-graders who were on stage with you Saturday.

Those spellers and their families are pulling for you.

Lisa Tedrick Prejean writes a weekly column for The Herald-Mail's Family page. Send e-mail to her at

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