I am nine years old and I am waiting for Camilla Zamora to misspell prospicience.
I never imagined myself as a girl on stage. I didn’t dream about the limelight or feel this overwhelming urge to be the center of the world. If I’m being honest, I never imagined myself as much. I never stood out as a kid and I doubted my teenage years would be much better. Life spits on quiet children, attracting the negative attention of concerned parents, and teachers who grade based on participation. Sometimes quiet kids turn into bubbly teenagers who finally find their place. That’s what my parents want. I hear them talking about it at night through when I’m supposed to be in bed.
My mom is concerned about me a lot of the time. She thinks I’m too serious for a child, that I think too much in the future. While I do think about the future sometimes, it would’ve been more correct for her to say that I live minute-by-minute. I let things happen—I am acceptor of everything handed to me.
And now, this attitude has placed me on a stage under hot lights that made my skin itch. The ugly red sweater that my mom wanted me to wear is trapping the heat and I can feel sweat clinging to my skin. The chair I’m sitting in is hard under me, and the way the back is shaped makes my spine ache. I know I should sit up straighter, but I can’t bring myself to do it. Instead, I am focusing my attention to tapping my finger rhythmically to the spelling of the word Camilla can’t seem to figure out.
I know this word. I’ve known it for months, after my mom printed out a list of winning spelling bee words. Prospicience won David Tidmarsh a national spelling bee in 2002. It sits towards the back of dictionaries I scan through, it sits in the minds of people who never bother to learn the definition.
Finally, Camilla speaks.
We’re only at the regional level of Texas spelling bees. With the excessive amounts of cities and counties and people, there are so many different spelling bees it’s hard to keep track. I won the one at my elementary school (with the word hibiscus), then district (cardiopulmonary) and now here. In this auditorium - belonging to a high school, the one I will most likely attend in the future - there are people filling every seat and lined in the back. But when she speaks, the entire room goes silent.
“P,” Camilla says, her voice soft. I see her foot tapping. She’s doing the same thing I am—tapping out the word, mentally picturing the letters mold together to form a word unfamiliar to most of the children we attend school with.
I see her hands shaking on either side of her skirt. She’s Eleven, her beautiful brown hair curling all the way down to her waist. She’s shorter than I am, but that’s my dad’s genetics coming into play. I’m told I’ll grow up to be just like them—thin, glass boned and tall. My mom’s genetics are coming in, too, like how I’m going to need to wear glasses in the future. My eyesight is already starting to blur, but I don’t want to mention it or I’ll be told it’s from reading too much small print.
“R,” her voice rings again. I can see her family sitting in the front row, giving her thumbs up. They all have the same round, cheery face she does. But it’s clear they’re nervous—I can see it in her mother’s naturally tan face.
“O, S, P.” she stops and taps her foot again. “I.”
This is where I always got stuck, too. It took me months to master actually getting the letters enunciated the way I wanted them to. I would want to say S almost every time. It’s the same with G’s and J’s—I’ll imagine it, I can see it, I know what it is, but I’ll still say the wrong one.
“S,” she says and a buzzer sounds off. I see her face crumble from the side, her body shrinking. It’s over for her. That’s the end.
Parents question “the system” a lot during PTA meetings. They say spelling bees are too much to ask of the kids and that it’s making them feel like they have to know words most adults don’t. But my mom always speaks up. She’s the only they are directing the words to; she’s the parent with the quiet child who always wins. They’re the parents who, while I’m in the room, will say my accomplishments don’t matter. It only counts if their kid is the one who brings home the trophy.
“If the children want to participate, let them participate,” she would say every single time.
I’ve always wondered if my mom does the same thing for my brother. He’s sixteen, the child that came too early in my parents’ marriage. He was the accident, the bad apple that they take all the blame for. He doesn’t do much except eat and glance at me surrounded by books and wonder what I’m doing. Our communication is limited, but I don’t mind him so much. He doesn’t ask me questions and I don’t bother him about things I know he doesn’t want to do. We’ve learned what our relationship is and it’s comforting.
My parents and I are still getting there. But we have so many years and so much time before I can even leave the house. No parents really understand their kid, anyway.
Mom lets me participate in spelling bees just so she can hear me talk when we’re together. I haven’t mentioned it to her before, but I heard her say it one time. We practice words over and over and over again until the words are songs and I am a jazz singer Dad listens to on Sunday mornings.
Words have always made sense to me. I’ve always liked how the words never change and how they are all using the same set of letters, but come out so differently. A lot of teachers tell me I’m gifted, that the fact I can remember these words with such ease is incredible. I’ve never understood why people are so shocked by my age. I’ve always felt like if a person can read, they can learn any word in the dictionary. It’s not as though we have to know what the word is, we just need to know what letters make it up.
“Harper Ryland,” the announcer says and I stand up from the chair. Camilla disappeared from the stage after she spelled the word wrong, shrinking down so small that she’s not even up there anymore. I stand in front of the crowd, their eyes on the gawky nine year old girl with thin yellow hair and dark brown eyes. “Prospicience.”
I use this moment to my advantage. Even though I know the word, spelling it so quickly and without thinking wouldn’t be fair on Camilla. I’m sure she worked just as hard to be here and I know she’d be embarrassed to lose like that to someone so young.
The crowd eyes me and I eye them, my fingers tapping my side. This doesn’t make me nervous. Their eyes on me, their shadowed faces staring, doesn’t affect me. All that matters is the microphone in front of me and the word I’m about to spell.
“Prospicience,” I say. My voice is strong, confident. “P-R-O-S-P-I-C-I-E-N-C-E. Prospicience.”
I finish and wait for the buzzer that I know won’t go off. The crowd is silent, waiting to see what happens next. They wait and wait and wait, watching me and then watching the judging table. It’s only a few seconds, but it feels like forever.
“Congratulations, Harper. You’re the winner of this regional, can’t wait to support you in the state spelling bee in October.” the woman with the microphone says. Her smile and voice are warm.
The audience erupts, a tidal wave of applause running over me with water so deep I can barely breathe. It’s one of the few moments in my life where I felt like things were different. I am not a nine year girl with straw for hair; I am the entire space around me, I am the air and the atmosphere and I am bigger than I could have ever possibly imagine myself.
I see my parents run up on stage, my mom with tears in her eyes and my dad smiling. They’re so happy for me, hugging me and kissing my forehead. I’ve never seen them look so relieved, it’s like they can finally breathe after waiting so long.
They’re saying things to me, but I can’t hear them. All I hear is the rushing of blood through my ears and my head and filling me with the kind of feeling I can’t describe. There are so many words in the dictionary that I know so well and I can’t find a single one.
Arriving home, however, shrunk my successes to feeling like a weird dream. I now have a trophy to add to the others I have earned this year and a dictionary and some coupons to local restaurants. I don’t really understand why I was getting praised for something that comes to naturally to me—it seems unfair.
Sawyer didn’t go to see me in the bee, but I didn’t expect any differently. I didn’t bother begging him to go, since he would just close his door. That’s the thing with older brothers; the age difference makes finding middle ground impossible.
He’s proud of me, though. For someone who doesn’t seem to care about much, he seems to think the fact that I spell words not even taught in his high school lit class is cool.
“Harper, we hate to go out on your night, but there’s a dinner tonight for your father’s work,” my mom tells me.
I’ve known about the dinner for weeks, it’s the thing I’ve been waiting for so desperately. I love my parents, but every time they leave I feel like I could breathe. It feels like I can finally just sit down and read or sit by myself or hangout without their worried eyes on me. My never spending time with people in my grade openly concerns them and that admittedly wears me down.
“Make sure you watch your sister,” Dad tells Sawyer. Sawyer grunts in response, digging his hands into his sweatshirt pockets. “We’ll be back around midnight or one.”
They kiss me on the forehead and my mom hugs Sawyer. My dad and Sawyer don’t get along, I hear them arguing constantly. It’ll be about school work or laziness or working too many shifts instead of doing extracurriculars.
Sawyer is smart, but in a different way than I am. He understands math equations and can read anything and will tell you everything anyone needs to know about the elements in chemistry, but he doesn’t care. He doesn’t push himself in classes or participate in events where he can show off his knowledge. The only thing Sawyer does with the information is let it sit in his mind, swirling around until he has the chance to reveal a piece of it.
My parents exit the house, locking the front door behind them and Sawyer walks back into the living room. I head upstairs to go to bed, exhausted from today. Even though most of the words come easily to me, there’s always the momentary panic of remembering how easy it is to forget these things. I watch the kids up on stage doubt their memory and question how the word actually is supposed to go. That’s how most of them get dropped off. They know what needs to be said, but in the moment they can’t find it.
I don’t even bother changing out of my clothes, I just collapse on my bed and curl up and let sleep take over. It’s a good feeling and it lets my brain finally relax.
I think about going to states, competing against more people than I ever have in my life. If I do actually plan to continue on to states, it’ll be a big deal and I’m not sure I want that. There’s no reason for me to need the award or to have it now. I can just wait.
But at the same time I’m not sure I want to.
I’m not sure what time it is when Sawyer runs into my room and wakes me up. “We need to go.”
“What?” I look at him, blinking and readjusting so I can see him in the bright lights of my room.
“I have to go drive somewhere and you need to come with me since I can’t leave you in the house alone,” he tells me. It’s not descriptive, but it’s the most words he’s said to me in a long time.
“I - what?”
“Just come on,” Sawyer tells me. He’s anxious about something, so it’s easy for me to get out of bed. Seeing him stressed out is strange since usually nothing gets to him. He’s always been like that.
I quickly follow him downstairs where he grabs his car keys and we head outside. It’s not cold, but it’s not warm either. It’s that uncomfortable time between winter and spring where it still looks like winter, but the earth is ready to change seasons.
This is the first time I have ever been in Sawyer’s car. He hasn’t had it for long so I don’t blame him for not wanting me in it. From what I know, he doesn’t let all that many people get rides.
I’m not sure where we’re going or how long the drive will be but after what feels like a never-ending ride, I give up and close my eyes. I don’t even know what time it is, all I know is that it’s dark and Mom and Dad will most likely be back sometime before we are.
The car stops and I hear noises outside. I hear footsteps and the car door opens again, hitting me with a blast of air.
“Who’s this?” A voice I’ve never heard asks. Their voice is slow and low, taking a long time to get syllables out.
“My sister,” Sawyer responds. Another door opens and this time I open my eyes, needing to see what is going on. I’ve never met these people in my life, but Sawyer seems to definitely know them.
The guy sitting next to me looks about Sawyer’s age, maybe a little older. He’s wearing shorts and his t-shirt has a stain on it. His hair, eyes and skin are the most beautiful varying shades of brown I had ever seen.
“Cool.” he nods and looks at me. I look back at him, unsure of what to say.
Two car doors open—the one on the driver’s side and the one on the passenger side. A girl pokes her head in at the driver’s side. “Thanks, Sawyer, you’re a lifesaver.”
“Yeah,” he responds, but he’s smiling. Really smiling. Like I have never seen him smile before.
She smiles in return, showing off a dimple on her cheek. They kiss really quickly, just a two second thing, and it’s obvious this isn’t the first time. It catches me off guard since Sawyer has never really struck me as the type to date. It’s not like he’s ever mentioned it.
Her eyes look over the seats, going over me and then the boy next to me and then back to me.
“Hey.” Her eyes look a little concerned.
“My sister. I couldn’t leave her home alone,” he explains and she nods.
She’s so happy that it looks like even her green eyes are smiling. “I’m Eden.”
“Hi,” I respond quietly, my voice barely audible even to me.
A person finally gets into the seat next to Sawyer, another boy about Sawyer’s age. He’s laughing, showing off a chipped tooth. “Yo, dude, what is up.”
“Taking you home,” Sawyer tells him.
“Sick, dude. Nice.” the guy nods.
Eden laughs a little. “Seriously, thank you. I can’t believe Victor would actually bail on them like that.”
“I can honestly say if Zoe is here, it’s not that unbelievable,” Sawyer tells her. I’m not sure who any of these people are, but their names are mentioned so casually that it’s clear Sawyer is close with them. It’s obvious how much he likes having them around.
“That’s true,” she responds. She lowers her voice a little. “Are you sure about having them in here with your sister?”
“She’s already a much better person than I could ever be, she’ll be fine. Nothing can influence her,” he tells her and it’s the first time I’d ever heard him say anything like that. I actually have to refrain some smiling.
Eden is clearly having the same kind of moment I am, her eyes softening and her smiling turning almost dopey. “Okay. Love you, text me when you get home safe.”
“Love you, too,” Sawyer responds, smiling. “Don’t get into any trouble, alright? Just call if anything else comes up.”
“If that’s true then I’ll text you in the morning when I have to help Lily clean her house,” Eden teases.
“My offer doesn’t stretch that far.” he laughs and they kiss again.
It’s a weird moment to watch, just because I had never seen my brother so human. He’s relaxed and happy and in love; he’s a completely different person.
Eden gives him one last look before looking back at me.
“It was nice to meet you,” she says to me, giving me a small wave. “Hopefully Sawyer will let me hang out with you at some point.”
I smile a little and Sawyer laughs. “If you really want to. I’m just worried you’ll start to spend more time with her than you will with me.”
“Oh, that’s a definite possibility.” Lily laughs, giving us all one last silent goodbye nod before softly closing the door and leaving the four of us in the car.
In that moment, sitting in silence with those three teenage boys, I realized that I felt something. I felt content, almost like being here made sense. I liked seeing my brother with his girlfriend and I liked how his friends weren’t bothered by the fact I was here. It wasn’t how I imagined my day would end, but it was nice either way.
And in that moment, I realized I liked it so much I wanted to just keep doing it.