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I got something better than a trophy at the Spelling Bee

By Kat Kinsman, Special to CNN

Kat Kinsman found "her people" at the 1986 National Spelling Bee.
Kat Kinsman found "her people" at the 1986 National Spelling Bee.
  • Kat Kinsman went to the National Spelling Bee at age 13 in 1986
  • Back home, she was an outsider with light-socket perm, train track braces
  • Now she was with kids who lived for language play, lovely books, good grades
  • Kat didn't win trophy, but won a friend who kind of understood her

(CNN) -- Phyllophorous: an adjective meaning "leaf-bearing" or, alternately, "the word that exiled me to the oft-fabled Crying Room at the 1986 National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C."

Strangely, I didn't mind; I'd already gotten my prize.

Very few of us are lovely on the outside at age 13, and even less so are those of us inclined toward worrying words down to their etymological nubbins. My light-socket perm, train track braces and penchant for unicorn sweatshirts weren't doing me any favors when it came to feeling at ease among my peers back home.

Yes, I'd gotten attention from the local press, glossy plaques, a pep rally at my Fort Thomas, Kentucky, school and, creepily enough, an obscene phone call -- all accolades for my ascent through regional bee wins. However, I'd have gladly traded every scrap of that for a chance to feel like one of the girls who knew how to give herself Sun-In highlights and flirt adorably with the boys on the basketball team.

That was until I met Karla.

Upon arrival at the Grand Hyatt hotel, spellers were issued a blue, plastic-bound autograph book as impetus to mingle with our fellow contenders. After some initial hesitation, I actually began to enjoy the ritual of handing over the little talisman, scribbling something silly in the the book they'd handed me in return, then trading back and madly flipping through to see what they'd written to me.

I liked Karla right away. She was "bee royalty" -- a brash, third-time competitor from Roanoke, Virginia, prone to yelling things like "Nuke the French!" and quoting British comedy shows. As she doodled an elaborate self-portrait that filled a whole page in the back of the book, she gave me the lay of the land.

That kid over there -- rumor had it his family had hired a professional coach to prep him. That girl -- home-schooled. Don't look for her at any of the mixers or day trips. Her mom was going to keep her locked in the hotel room, cramming until the very last second.

2010 Spelling Bee kicked off Wednesday

Karla, herself, wasn't going to be skimping on socializing and sightseeing, but she was going to sequester herself for some last-minute studying in the hopes of making one last run at the title in her final year of eligibility.

And oddly -- very oddly -- for me, a kid prone to gut-grinding panic attacks, self-flagellation over academic success and generally ill at ease in my own skin, I began to sink into calm. I wasn't, for once, the dorkiest girl in the room, and instead was surrounded by kids who lived for language play, lovely books, good grades and a life of the mind.

I'd suddenly found my people. And while there wasn't a gawky little ghost of a chance that I was going to beat them in the bee this year, I was cool with that.

My cool lasted until we hit the ballroom stage the next day and a few hundred terrified, raw-nerved elementary school kids with pasteboard number signs around our necks had to stand in front of cameras from every major national news organization and spell words that I could have sworn the announcers were making up on the spot: gobemouche, phaeochrous, exiguous.

Many kids hemmed, hawed, begged, borrowed and stole time with requests for definitions, etymologies, sentence use. I just went for it.

Machine (duh!). Ethos (a word I shoehorn into conversation as frequently as possible). I think there's another round I'm still blocking out.

And then: "Phyllophorous."

"Could you repeat that?"



Buzz. Incorrect. My head, now freed of its duties for the day, floated somewhere off into the middle distance, and I trudged off to the Crying Room where some well-meaning volunteers offered tissues, cookies and hugs to spellers whose dreams had been shattered.

I opted for the cookie and went off to apologize to my dad, who'd spent a goodly amount of his evenings on my training. That's OK, he assured me. He was just excited that we'd get to go to more museums. Did I want to hit the National Gallery now?

I'd wanted to go to that museum for ages, but instead, I took my place in the audience and watched my friend Karla battle through several more rounds before butting up against, I believe the word was, "dentifrice."

She joined me in the ballroom, kibitzing at my side as speller 102, Jon Pennington of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, took home top honors for "odontalgia" - a fancy word for toothache.

Karla grumbled that she totally could have gotten that one. I nodded in sympathy.

Jon went on TV to visit David Letterman and spell against Johnny Carson, where I'm happy to say, one of Doc Severinson's bandmates spelled "phyllophorous" incorrectly.

Jon got cash prizes and a place in the history books. I got a weird, funny friend who kind of understood me. And that was o-k-a-y with me.