How a fam­ily’s four sim­ple rules made adult spelling bee cham­pi­ons out of a trio of ar­gu­men­ta­tive sib­lings.

Milwaukee Magazine - - Con­tent - By Julie Blume Bene­dict

No sib­ling ri­valry here. Just u-n-i-t-y.

IF THE ADAGE “You can pick your nose but not your fam­ily” strikes a nerve, you prob­a­bly know how hard it some­times is for sib­lings to agree. My two broth­ers and I can at­test to this, but we en­tered an adult team spelling bee to­gether any­way. Yes, there is such a thing – an an­nual fundraiser for the Adult Lit­er­acy Cen­ter of Ozau­kee County.

It turned out our big­gest chal­lenge wasn’t spelling dif­fi­cult words, but not fight­ing while we were do­ing it. As kids, the boys dom­i­nated our house­hold, and scuf­fles were the pri­mary form of ne­go­ti­a­tion.

And con­sen­sus is key in a team bee. Af­ter a pro­nouncer says a word, the team has 20 sec­onds to de­cide how to spell it. At the bell, one team mem­ber has to spell the word aloud with no as­sis­tance, ro­tat­ing the speller each round.

In need of a strat­egy to help keep the peace, we de­faulted to our par­ents’ four fam­ily rules. Maybe it was be­cause Mom was in the au­di­ence, or maybe we knew the bee judges would frown upon us duk­ing it out. Ei­ther way, these old rules still work.

Rule 1: It’s OK to be a lit­tle weird.

I think Dad’s quirky ob­ses­sion with restor­ing an­tique trac­tors set the stage for each of us to cul­ti­vate our own unique in­ter­ests. We grew up to be “all in” to our hob­bies as well as our ca­reers, so we each brought a dif­fer­ent strain of geeky knowl­edge to the com­pe­ti­tion that was crit­i­cal dur­ing the bee. Big brother Jack dug into his love of geog­ra­phy to spell “lim­itro­phe,” a word I’d never even heard of. I tapped my Poe fetish for “mael­strom.” Vinyl en­thu­si­ast Jeff nailed “solip­sist,” say­ing it ap­pears in a lot of record re­views. Rule 2: Work with each other.

As farm kids, if we wanted to eat, we had to work. Our main job was to weed the gar­dens every sin­gle sunny day of the sum­mer. If one of us was sick or had a class or camp, the other two had to make up the work. While crouch­ing among the plants (and bugs and some­times snakes) we learned to trust each other to give and take – the key to ef­fec­tive team­work. In our 20-sec­ond hud­dles, we scrib­bled and de­bated, scrib­bled and de­bated, then voted and let ma­jor­ity rule.

Rule 3: If Rule 2 fails (some­times it will), get over it.

One of our other farm jobs was to pick rocks by hand. Acres of them. All that drudgery in the dirt made us gritty and thick-skinned, which came in handy when I in­sisted the sec­ond “s” in “solip­sist” should be a “c.” Jeff, cussing, told me he was go­ing with an “s” and ap­proached the mi­cro­phone de­spite my heated protest. I saw a few star­tled faces as we raised our voices, but the pro­nouncer told us he was cor­rect. I was glad he was, and we all moved on to the next word, still to­gether.

Rule 4: Be nice to ev­ery­one. You never know when you’ll need help.

For the bee, each team could buy a free pass on a word. I’m not sure if we were just cheap or if we didn’t think we’d ad­vance far enough to need it, but we didn’t buy one. For­tu­nately, we made friends with three de­light­ful ladies in bee cos­tumes. They went down early, and the pass they gave us dur­ing in­ter­mis­sion saved us. Win­ners win only be­cause some­one else lost. Re­mem­ber that.

And win we did — fit­tingly, with the word “heuris­tic,” which Mer­riam-Webster de­fines as “in­volv­ing or serv­ing as an aid to learn­ing, dis­cov­ery or prob­lem-solv­ing by ex­per­i­men­tal and es­pe­cially trial-and-er­ror meth­ods.” All sib­ling re­la­tion­ships are a se­ries of tri­als and er­rors, and our spelling bee trial made us re­al­ize we are stronger as a team than we are solo. I think this will come in handy as we grow older. Thanks, Mom and Dad. I’m glad we fi­nally lis­tened.

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