I never enjoy telling this story. I nearly used it as my commencement address several weeks ago, but I find it too embarrassing to say it aloud to that many people at once. It’s truly sad and out of the character that most people know me by today. It’s ironic that one of my greatest achievements is also one of my greatest failures and one of the few turning points in my life where my personality was changed permanently as a result.
People often ask me why I bring so much intensity when working on projects or on a team. They wonder why I feel it is necessary and not a burden to work on a valuation assignment until all hours of the night. It all stems from this experience.
It happened about a decade ago. When I was twelve, I muscled my way to the top three of the city bee. In the couple of weeks before the competition I realized the potential I had when I set my mind to actual studying. That June, I began studying again for the next bee in March. There would be no stopping me.
Sure enough, I busted my tail for months and qualified for the Scripps National Spelling Bee with the word photolysis. What followed was quite a spectacle. My name and face appeared on the front page of the newspaper, hundreds of people called my house to congratulate my parents and me (this was truly surreal—even the nurse who delivered me called my mom and dad), and I suddenly became a bit of a hero at school.
The fame was awesome. Overnight, people knew who I was, as if I had brought some legitimacy to nerd status. The cool kids definitely paid their respect. It was nice to walk up and down the hallways of Desert View Middle School with people saying hi and asking how I was doing. I relished this change, as I was now a true “spell-ebrity.”
In the meanwhile, I had three months and an expanded word list to learn. And I was ignoring it. Okay, I’ll say it: my preparation was atrocious, and I was about to pay.
In the experimental (at the time) written round, I missed the cut by a couple of words. I’ll never forget it either. The reporter from the El Paso Times interviewed me and asked me how I felt; I said, “Devastated.” My dad gave me a look, and he asked, “How can you feel ‘devastated’ when you didn’t even study?” I told him I’ll just come back next year.
I took a couple of weeks off and began to prepare for the next March. It would be my last year of eligibility, but I would be the first El Pasoan to compete in the national competition in consecutive years in quite a while. (El Paso actually has a pretty competitive bee, as it also incorporates southern New Mexico.) No big deal.
What happened next was nothing short of divine intervention.
That March I was in the position that I wanted to be in. I had cut out all the pretenders from the competition, and I was there, with experience, spelling words that were no longer in the Paideia, the distributed word list. In a position to win, I felt confident. Here I went; I stepped up to the podium to receive my word.
“Eiderdown.” Eiderdown? PERFECT! German origin, means the feathers in a pillow. And I proceeded to ask the usual questions…except in a cocky way to prove I knew the word. “German, right?” “Yes,” replied the pronouncer, Gary Warner.
Oh no! I didn’t say that! ….did I? I choked a bit. Surely I hadn’t just said that. The rules say I can’t take back letters, but I spell so slowly, there’s no way I actually said that.
“Let me start over.
Oh no! I did it again! It’s over. I couldn’t believe it. A mistake I never made because I spelled at the speed of dirt, I made twice, and now it was over. I spelled the word correctly on the third try, but it was too late. I exited the stage.
I finally knew what “devastated” felt like. I knew exactly how to spell that word, but 2003 was someone else’s turn. I had already had my shot and blown it.
That day, I learned that sometimes, you only have one opportunity to make your mark. When I was 13, I took my chance for granted. I swore that from then on, I would treat every opportunity as if it was the only one I would ever get, because I now knew that there were no guarantees at second chances.
Imagine: I missed a word that I knew how to spell. My trip to the national spelling bee was not only a feat but a failure. My preparation was poor, and I failed to reach my potential as a result. Don’t get me wrong—I’m not saying I would have won it all. But I could have at least advanced two more rounds with adequate preparation, and at that point, anything can happen.
And that is why I approach what I do in the manner that I do. I stay up at all hours of the night doing homework to make up for the hours that I neglected that new stack of words. I have one stint at UT, and there’s no going back in time.
I used to carry a binder with the saying “PREPARE like a Champion.” That’s because championships begin long before seasons start. They begin in the off-season, when there is no one else in the gym. Just you against yourself, shooting free throws and running laps.
I’ve always reminisced that life is a spelling bee: you compete against yourself. You get to see what you are made of. And that is why you see me in McCombs, two weeks after graduation, finishing up some work still. Because there is nothing like giving your whole heart to something, and incessantly pursuing it—whatever it is you do. When you have the opportunity to do something well or leave your mark, approach it with your whole heart and your whole being. I thought I would have a second chance, but it turned out that fate had other plans. Thus, do not ever take opportunity for granted because you may never have it again.