Amy Collini

Creative Nonfiction

Amy Collini’s essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Slice, Indiana Review, Soundings Review, Pithead Chapel, Rappahannock Review, Ilanot Review, Literary Mama, and elsewhere. She lives in Columbus, Ohio, with her husband and two young sons and is currently working on a novel.


Karyotin: the substance of chromosomes, stainable with basic dyes

I am fourteen when I go to the national spelling bee in Washington, D.C. Sponsoring newspapers pay the expenses of each speller and their official escort; I am one of only two, out of 222, who choose their father instead of their mother as escort.

This is how I remember my downfall at the national bee: I am sitting in the Comfort Room, having just been escorted off stage after misspelling “karyotin” in the third round. I am slumped into a navy blue armchair, my face wet with tears, my enormous glasses sliding down my nose. The Comfort Room is a transitional space located just off the stage, and the reporters that follow each speller are denied entrance; only family is allowed contact with fallen spellers. A galvanized tub full of sugary carbonated drinks on ice stands in the corner; my little brother helps himself to a can and slurps quickly while no one is paying attention. After two previous bees, this is my first loss, and I feel incapable of even the slightest movement. My brother makes an attempt at hugging me before I collapse in the chair, but after that, my family surrounds me in a semi-circle and just stares at me while I cry.

My mother, standing several feet away, says coolly, “You know, Ames,”—this is her nickname for me when she is being either patronizing or condescending—“sometimes you just need to quit feeling sorry for yourself.”


Inimical: having the disposition of an enemy

My mother missed the previous two qualifying bees. For the first, the city bee, she decided she didn’t want to skip the weekly class where she was learning how to paint flowers on the sides of hand-woven baskets. She is tired of being just a mother; later, when I am in high school, she will go into nursing school, but for now she is still searching for her own identity, and it doesn’t include her children. Possibly it never has.

I had never attended a spelling bee before, and I was surprised to see the wooden stands in the middle-school gym filled with anxious parents and siblings. My father sat somewhere to the right in my line of sight, accompanied by my little sister and brother, but I couldn’t see them as the spellers were whittled down to a few, and then just two of us. The other speller and I both misspelled statistician—I believed the root of the word was “status,” and was too nervous to remember I could ask for a definition—but then I was given the word inimical, a word I’d never heard. I spelled it correctly, and I won. This victory secured my entry into the regional bee.

That night I brought home the trophy like an offering.


Renown: a state of being widely acclaimed and highly honored: fame

The night of the regional bee, the second, my parents get into a vicious fight; this is a routine family procedure. The topic, long since forgotten, doesn’t matter; my mother wants to punish my father for some infraction, and no matter how much he begs her to come to the spelling bee for my sake, she refuses to budge. My grandmother, who accompanies us, also pleads with her before we leave, but my mother is resolute, scowling and silent in her burgundy armchair. When we arrive at the university hall where the bee will be held, my father walks again and again to the payphone in the corner of the lobby; he and my grandmother take turns calling her, begging her to come, while I stand amidst the crowd and watch them until we are called to our seats.

Just as before, spellers fall in great clumps until finally it is just a pale-faced blond boy and me alone on the stage. The pronouncer switches to a list of commonly-misspelled words for the final elimination round. When the blond boy misspells the word “renown,” substituting a “u” for the “w,” I know I have clinched it. I clutch the sides of my blue flowered skirt and spell it correctly, and just like that, I am going to the national spelling bee. I momentarily cover my face to hide from the thunderous applause, unsure of how to react; my father makes his way to the stage, where he bear hugs me and tells me how proud he is. This shot is caught by the newspaper photographer and printed the next day, the clip of which will be tucked into a box and towed with me everywhere through adulthood.

Once again, I cart home a gigantic trophy, but this time in the car my father and I plan to surprise my mother. We will tell her that I lost, and I will act hurt and dejected, and then thrust the trophy at her, a prize mouse brought home by the family cat, dropped on the doorstep with intent to impress and delight. She is shocked and excited when I finally tell her; the house erupts with noisy chatter and planning for the week-long trip to the capital. My mother quizzes me from the little study booklet for spellers, but eventually she loses interest and retreats to her own world again, and tells me to go read the dictionary at the library. I do it once or twice—the OED is the edition the bee recommends, and I can barely pick it up—before I quit, overwhelmed by the sheer number of words. I feel both hopeless and complacent: why won’t my mother help me? And why should I bother anyway, when I’ve won the first two bees with my natural talent?

On an afternoon in late May, just before we leave for Washington, D.C., I arrive home from school to find my mother standing in the living room, waiting for me. My heart palpitates and my breath catches; whenever I come home to find her waiting, it usually precedes a grounding or, sometimes, a rage-filled lecture that derails into a beating. But on this day, she bestows me with a gift, some awkward combination of good luck, apology and congratulations. The gray velvet box she hands me contains an oval aquamarine pendant the color of tears; the stone is topped by a single tiny diamond and dangles from a filament of gold chain.

Many years later, when I am a sophomore at Ohio State, I will take the necklace off one night while studying, spooling it into a pile on a textbook on the floor. When I go to look for it later, it will have disappeared. I will look over the carpet a few times but I will never see it again. I don’t look very hard.

I went to the national spelling bee in 1988. I carried this essay with me for several years, writing and rewriting until it found its current form. When I realized that each bee's winning (and losing) word carried a larger meaning in my own life, I was finally able to capture my experiences as well as the dynamic with my mother in the essay.