Next week will mark 10 years since we learned that we were going to be first-time parents. As anyone with kids knows, that’s pretty much the last moment you’re allowed to think of yourself as a priority. Whether it’s the fragility of life in utero, the helplessness of infancy, the accelerated learning of toddler days, or just the evolution throughout one’s grade school years, parents are always going to live and die with and for their children. But I’ve always said that I wasn’t going to be a little league dad. When Iris or Robyn are performing or on the sports field/court, I’d be down to earth and know that everything was fine as long as they had a good time. And as Iris struggled at soccer and softly mouthed the lyrics at her performances, I never got upset or felt bad. As long as she was doing OK and learning, I was OK. Same with Robyn and basketball, where she often looks lost or out of place on a court and everyone else looks twice her size. I’ve rooted for them, hoped they’d achieve something remarkable, shared in the thrill when they did, but always accepted the fact that sports and arts aren’t always about being a star, but rather learning life’s lessons. Show up, provide unconditional support, and help them if they want to get better. Yep, I was a cool cat when it came to performances and competitions. That is until I learned the girls’ elementary school was having a spelling bee.
An academic competition combined with public speaking? For our little nine-year old, that would either be a recipe for success or disaster. Iris can be painfully shy and can sometimes speak with an ultra-quiet voice at times (never with us, of course). Still, the one thing she didn’t lack was confidence in her academic abilities. Iris got the list of words and began to learn them, but she never got that focused. In fact, it was Robyn seemed more excited about learning words. There were times when the only reason Iris would study is because she didn’t like falling behind Robyn. But as I said, Iris did not lack confidence. She assumed she was going to win. In fact, that concerned me as much as anything else. I thought I might have to step in with a pep talk to incite that little extra studying so that she wouldn’t be overconfident. Unfortunately, I was heading out of town for a few days during the week of the spelling bee, so I knew I couldn’t really help very much during that time and that was left up to Cherise. Besides, maybe she didn’t have to win. Cherise and I had a conversation where we said that, much like last year’s science fair where she built an amazing project but she never put the elbow grease in to make it look good, maybe losing wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. After all, she was in the 4h grade and she had one more year to try again. Maybe the humbling experience of losing would make her a little more focused for next year.
The day of the event seemed like any other day. One of the perks of working from home as much as I do is that I can occasionally make myself available for daytime events at school. When I asked Iris if she wanted me to attend, she responded with an emphatic “Yes!” This was in stark contrast to when I was a child and I wouldn’t let my parents to attend my events because I didn’t want a reason to get nervous. Here was my 9-year old daughter expecting to put a command performance for me. I started thinking about all the ways things could go wrong. What if she choked on the first word and dropped out? Then I’d have to sit there and watch the entire spelling bee while worrying about the psyche of my fragile daughter. I began to have all these concerns about overconfidence and started thinking about what I would say to her if and when she lost. We would have a talk, it would hopefully change her life in a profound way, and then I’d blog about it. But a funny thing happened on the way to that talk. It never happened.
The stage transformed my “fragile” flower into a strong, confident young woman (yeah, I said woman). Obviously I’m a proud father, but I typically keep things in perspective. Yet this was one time when hyperbole is impossible. She truly stepped up her game. From the first word, she blazed through the letters loud enough that you could hear it in the next town. Some of the other kids seemed nervous, mumbling letters and stumbling in fits and starts, but Iris couldn’t wait to rattle off letters. As 40 kids dropped down to 20, then 10, and eventually 4, she just kept sticking around and never got nervous, never got anxious, and just played it as cool. By the time she reached the final four, I had to get up and start recording the thing. I went from worrying about my daughter’s psyche to realizing that this could be an afternoon she would never forget. Much like that first basket she made on a 10 foot rim two years ago, I got the sense I was witnessing a critical part of my daughter’s life. Even though had my iPhone capturing every moment, I knew that I’d never need YouTube to remind me of this day. As the final four dropped down to the final two and Iris was one of them, I dug in. But then my doubt began to creep in. I started wondering “How long can she last? The other student is really good.” But before I could even start to really think through those doubts and the potential pain of coming so close and missing, the other finalist missed the first word. At this point, you can see the video shaking as I was getting nervous. I never really get nervous about anything, but I was nervous for Iris. That made one of us. Iris promptly nailed the next word and then, as with the rules of the spelling bee, she needed to get one more word. As the Principal said “exoneration”, a small smile cracked across the face that I’ve grown to love so much and I knew it was over. As if she couldn’t wait for the principal to finish the word, she jumped on it and sped through the letters without taking a breath. There was a short pause before the principal proclaimed, “And we have a new Spelling Champion in Walnut Acres”. And I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry, or start yelling. Almost 10 years to the day that I found out I was going to be a father, I truly learned what pride meant. Pride in my 9-year old daughter to accomplish this wonderful thing, pride in a wife who had the patience work with that daughter through highs and lows, and pride in a six year old daughter who was such an overachiever that she was the one who truly lit the fire under Iris in a way not even I could. But what impressed me about Iris more than spelling a bunch of words with increasing difficulty and pressure was how humble she became about the accomplishment, continually thanking Cherise and even Robyn for helping her win the bee. Now obviously, this is just a school spelling bee and I don’t expect this to be the highlight of Iris’ life. Who knows–she may go to the next round and miss the first word. But when days like this happen, I can’t help but think that we’re doing some things right. And as I’ve committed to putting my life behind that of my children starting 10 years ago, I’ve also begun to realize that I’ve put my triumphs behind theirs as well. I can truly say that I couldn’t have been happier if I was the nine-year old winning it myself.
Thank you Iris—and Cherise and Robyn–for today and every day and reminding me that “we” is so much better than “me”.