Annie’s six-year-old eyes brimmed with tears as she took her first reluctant step forward. The pressure, the stakes, the sheer magnitude of her surroundings threatened to consume her, like a monster with teeth ten times sharper than in any story she had heard before. Another step would put her in her worst nightmare – over a hundred of her peers staring intently at her bright red face; little Annie, alone in front of them all, with no hands to hold or parents to help her; and just one immeasurably daunting word to spell, taunting Annie with what was sure to be a number of syllables that she couldn’t even count to. So, instead of taking another step into the abyss that was the Wilson Elementary spelling bee, she turned around and scurried off to the corner of the auditorium, where she sat down facing a painted concrete wall, and wept.
Shaking and sniffling with her head clutched in the wall’s grasp, she argued with herself for what felt like an hour – “You’re embarrassing yourself, Annie.” “Be quiet, Annie!” – before an unsolicited voice of kindness interrupted her heated internal debate.
“Annie, sweetheart, you don’t have to keep going if you don’t want to, but-”
“I don’t,” she snapped.
“Well, I think you should know that if you get this word right, you win the whole spelling bee. We’ve never had a first-grader do that before.”
She spun to see the sympathetic eyes of Mrs. Smith, the librarian. “Never?” she asked.
At once, the derisive voice inside Annie’s head, which couldn’t even agree with itself moments ago, adopted a kinder tone. Emboldened, she hoisted herself up, her eyes red and hair gripping the drying tears that stained her rosy cheeks.
Mrs. Smith smiled and wiped Annie’s face with her sleeve. “Come on,” she said, gripping Annie’s hand as the two ascended the stage once more.
Patting Annie’s shoulder, Mrs. Smith wished her luck before departing. Standing alone, sniffling and damp, Annie inhaled deeply, nodded that she was ready, and received her word.
She took another deep breath, and spelled out,