“Mom, I’m going to win the spelling bee and go to Anchorage,” my nine-year-old confidently informed me.

I smoothed her brown silky bob and tried to manage her expectations. 

“Well, there are a lot of kids competing and spelling is really hard,” I hedged.

My daughter sometimes functions below grade level due to a genetic abnormality. She’s small for her age, a wispy pixie who still fits in 6T. She’s outgoing and kind, and friends with everyone, but lately I’ve noticed a disconnect between her and her classmates. 

“So-and-so is my best friend,” she reported, “but she won’t let me play with her.”

I had forgotten about the spelling bee. Not having participated in one myself, the practice seemed like a quaint activity from times past, something to read about in a Little House on the Prairie book, far removed from an age of predictive text.

I encouraged my child exactly zero percent. I didn’t see the point of learning to spell a word when what really matters is what the word means and how to use it in a conversation or on paper.

But my 9-year-old took the task seriously. She brought the spelling list to bed and read through it at meal times for weeks. Soon, the stapled pages looked so ragged and unsanitary that I threw them away. She came home with a new set and the studying continued.

A teacher sent me a picture of my child the day of the spelling bee. That little nugget came in seventh out of 30 children, the last elementary school participant to be eliminated. She was elated, a spelling superstar with hallways full of high-fives and congratulations.

When she came home she ripped off her mask and jacket and threw both arms into the sky.

“Look at me,” her body said. “I am amazing.”

“You worked so hard,” I praised her. “I wish I could give you ten trips to Anchorage.” (To be clear her next trip will probably be a dentist appointment in Juneau, if she’s lucky.) 

Her achievement surprised and delighted me, and I started examining my parenting skills. How often do I underestimate her? Was I shortchanging my other children as well? What if I’m a dream squasher who encourages mediocrity?

The spelling accolade also made me sad. She won’t always be rewarded for hard work because life isn’t fair. So, I did what I could at that moment. I bought her a $20 cake from ACC Market, because that’s kinder than baking one myself, and praised her determination and grit. She is amazing.