Essay: How 4 Simple Rules Made Adult Spelling Bee Champions out of this Trio of Argumentative Siblings

No sibling rivalry here. Just u-n-i-t-y.

If the adage “You can pick your nose but not your family” strikes a nerve, you probably know how hard it sometimes is for siblings to agree. My two brothers and I can attest to this, but we entered an adult team spelling bee together anyway. Yes, there is such a thing – an annual fundraiser for the Adult Literacy Center of Ozaukee County.

It turned out our biggest challenge wasn’t spelling difficult words, but not fighting while we were doing it. As kids, the boys dominated our household, and scuffles were the primary form of negotiation.

And consensus is key in a team bee. After a pronouncer says a word, the team has 20 seconds to decide how to spell it. At the bell, one team member has to spell the word aloud with no assistance, rotating the speller each round.

In need of a strategy to help keep the peace, we defaulted to our parents’ four family rules. Maybe it was because Mom was in the audience, or maybe we knew the bee judges would frown upon us duking it out. Either way, these old rules still work.

Rule 1: It’s OK to be a little weird.

I think Dad’s quirky obsession with restoring antique tractors set the stage for each of us to cultivate our own unique interests. We grew up to be “all in” to our hobbies as well as our careers, so we each brought a different strain of geeky knowledge to the competition that was critical during the bee. Big brother Jack dug into his love of geography to spell “limitrophe,” a word I’d never even heard of. I tapped my Poe fetish for “maelstrom.” Vinyl enthusiast Jeff nailed “solipsist,” saying it appears in a lot of record reviews.

Rule 2: Work with each other.

As farm kids, if we wanted to eat, we had to work. Our main job was to weed the gardens every single sunny day of the summer. If one of us was sick or had a class or camp, the other two had to make up the work. While crouching among the plants (and bugs and sometimes snakes) we learned to trust each other to give and take – the key to effective teamwork. In our 20-second huddles, we scribbled and debated, scribbled and debated, then voted and let majority rule.

Rule 3: If Rule 2 fails (sometimes it will), get over it.

One of our other farm jobs was to pick rocks by hand. Acres of them. All that drudgery in the dirt made us gritty and thick-skinned, which came in handy when I insisted the second “s” in “solipsist” should be a “c.” Jeff, cussing, told me he was going with an “s” and approached the microphone despite my heated protest. I saw a few startled faces as we raised our voices, but the pronouncer told us he was correct. I was glad he was, and we all moved on to the next word, still together.

Rule 4: Be nice to everyone. You never know when you’ll need help.

For the bee, each team could buy a free pass on a word. I’m not sure if we were just cheap or if we didn’t think we’d advance far enough to need it, but we didn’t buy one. Fortunately, we made friends with three delightful ladies in bee costumes. They went down early, and the pass they gave us during intermission saved us. Winners win only because someone else lost. Remember that.

And win we did — fittingly, with the word “heuristic,” which Merriam-Webster defines as “involving or serving as an aid to learning, discovery or problem-solving by experimental and especially trial-and-error methods.” All sibling relationships are a series of trials and errors, and our spelling bee trial made us realize we are stronger as a team than we are solo. I think this will come in handy as we grow older. Thanks, Mom and Dad. I’m glad we finally listened. ◆

‘T-E-A-M-W-O-R-K’ appears in the March 2018 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning February 26, or buy a copy at