This is Important: SPELLING Ellie McElvain

My middle school hosted a spelling bee every year, divided by grade. As a voracious reader, this was great. As a general sass-bag who felt she didn’t get enough respect and admiration for knowing how to spell onomatopoeia without looking it up, this was PERFECT. Actually, this was gonna change everything.

Like most people, I floated around in an uncomfortable limbo throughout most of middle school. But unlike many other junior high complaint memoirs, I was popular. I know! It was weird and it was fleeting, so let me explain. I dutifully followed the strict 12-yr-old pretty girls’ dress code of Abercrombie jean skirts and tight Hollister v-necks, so I had lots of galpals. Also, I happened to bosom-blossom precociously, so I had lots of boyfriends, too! All of these factors sort of shuffled me into the popular clique, mostly on accident.

The accident part is that I was never supposed to be cool. I am a weirdo – and this was especially true on the middle school spectrum of acceptable interests and activities. In addition to halfheartedly playing soccer, my favorite things to do were making up characters out of my notebook doodles, collecting hotel soap and sparking loud arguments with the one other kid in my social studies class who knew something about current politics and was a Republican. I was in 7th grade when George W. Bush ran for reelection and I honestly walked around with a ticking “Bush Countdown” keychain attached to my backpack. And yeah, hotel soap.

They weren't even vintage. Just had about 57 different types of chain hotel soaps on my bedroom dresser. I know.

Long story short, the popular clique didn’t know how to deal with me, so I was basically treated as a pet or a jester, I suppose. And because of my hot little 12-year-old body and thick eyeliner, few of the kids I really wanted as friends respected me as their intellectual equal. I was like that puzzle piece that got chewed on by the dog. I was supposed to fit in. I didn’t.

Luckily, I convinced myself that all these problems and more were going to be fixed if I entered and won my eighth grade spelling bee! The nerdy kids would finally see me for who I truly was, my popular friends would be too busy texting about the Jesse McCartney concert at Stratford Mall that weekend to notice! Maybe America would even impeach Bush!!!

Right before the contest began, all the participants gathered in the auditorium. The teacher explained that we would go up, say and spell our name to familiarize ourselves with the “bee format” and also to introduce ourselves. Then the real spelling begins. I was like, “Let’s DO this,” and my brain was like “You’ve put a lot of pressure on this moment, not so sure it’s gonna work out the way you see it,” and I was like, “You shush your brain-mouth Brain!” and my body was like, “I’ll just hang out here and sweat profusely, don’t worry.”

I approached the podium, sweaty and nervous but mostly sweaty. Like, unbelievably sweaty. Tight Hollister shirts are not famous for their sweat-wicking abilities. So, so much pit sweat is basically what I’m saying. Amidst this sweat, and unnerving buzzing of 150 pimple-faced kids, I began:

“My name is Ellie. E-L-I-E. OH GOD NO.”

I spelled my name wrong. I spelled my name wrong. Cackles immediately erupted, a wave of whispers rippled through the audience until everyone and their Neopet knew what just happened. It was so simple – slurring my Ls – but completely out of my hands the moment I acknowledged my mistake.

That's wrong too! Get yourself together, Ellie!

I proceeded to spell every other word correctly and qualify for the all-school spelling bee the next week. No one cared, except to note that our grade’s top speller couldn’t even spell her name. LOL. My plan, my wild goose-chase pipe-dream fix for my social and intellectual life, was crushed.

A few months later, I graduated the eighth grade. I stopped hanging out with most of my cool friends. I cut my hair short. I got a puppy and basically only spent time with him. I went into high school completely freed of my service to the clique. It wasn’t easy – being cool is a heady experience – but it’s a decision I look back to as one of the most important milestones in my life’s direction. Because, like, puppy! Just kidding.

But this is important: soap-collecting, soaps-watching, calculating the chemical balances in public restroom soap, or being like “Ew, I don’t wanna see your soap collection again, Ellie!” we’re all people who deserve to feel accepted without compromising our core selves. If it means being alone for awhile, so be it. You’ll find your jam, I promise.

Feature Image via blogs.ublabs.org/thefinalscore/ Soap image via www.flickriver.com/photos/beateknappe

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  1. When I was in fifth grade my teacher realized that her spelling words were really easy and let a group of us pick our own words. I only remember two of them, but one of them was onomatopoeia! It’s a shame it’s not a more practical word.

  2. Ellie, dear, I believe we are meant to be best friends LOL :) Love this article and can completely relate. I, too, longed for the middle school spelling bee to give my nerdiness some glory. However, I spelled the world reestablish incorrectly. This has since haunted me, even though the girl who lost ahead of me could not spell a word as simple as pretzel. Even so, I have now embraced my I’m-supposed-to-fit-in-but-don’t personality :)

  3. omg this is just like what happened to me! i won my 7th grade spelling bee ($600!! was supposed to go to a grand final and maybe win $10000 but they couldn’t afford to hold it haha)

    oh except i was never cool. probably because my boobs didn’t come in til 9th grade

  4. OMG! When I was a kid, I was obsessed with my spelling ability. I still take pride in it. I even dreamed of going to the National Spelling Bee. I was the Rachel Berry of spelling. I was even on the spelling team in middle school. Suprisingly, no one ever made fun of me. Everyone was in awe of my skills. LOL! Sorry for geeking out!

  5. I love you, Ellie. This was super entertaining.

  6. I love this article. Hilarious, but so real. Jr high is such an intriguing thing. I despised 7th grade because as a popular elementary girl I got left behind because I was taller than everyone, read too much, and didn’t like make-up except glitter (I KNOW… it’s embarrassing to look back at pictures of this time). 8th grade I blossomed and made it to semi popularity in the honors class clique so life didn’t feel so doomed, but I was still fringe. Maybe the token “too into school” member of the clique, but it just made jr high so much more palatable. I wish that wasn’t the truth, but I just feel jr. high is such a trial by fire of whether you can deal with horribleness and come out okay the other side. ALso, at my jr high, hugging was huge, and i am such an awkward hugger (my limbs are like gumby). I just saw you 10 minutes ago, why do we need to hug to prove friendship everytime we see each other?

  7. Isn’t that ridiculous the way people can make you feel like you have to be something different? Thanks for sharing! One part of my post I didn’t include was that those popular girls were all subjugating themselves too, and I watched quite a few of them branch out in great ways. But middle school suxxxx!

    • With the number of people who hated middle school, I’m wondering how its ridiculousness keeps being perpetuated. Are we all hard-wired to be evil when we’re 12?

  8. I had a similar experience in middle school. When my family moved to Virginia, there was a popular girl in my 5th grade class whose friends were all in another class. In a moment of desperation, she reached out to me, the new girl. That was also the moment I learned JNCO Jeans were a no. I was never part of the popular crowd before, but suddenly I was being made to believe that I could only be cool if I called the other girls bitches behind their backs. In 7th grade, I managed to weasel my way out of that crowd, and I became friends with “the smart kids” once I got accepted into the gifted program. That was one of the best decisions I ever made, as I’m still friends with these people at the age of 23.

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