He watched silent dust particles float in the confining, stagnant air around him, someone must have forgotten to open the windows in the auditorium this morning. Adolescence oozed from the chairs behind him on the stage and Emanuel wondered briefly if he smelled like that, too. Of course he did, especially at this moment. He could feel the beads of perspiration forming on his forehead as he slowly asked his next question.
“Can you use it in a sentence, please?
This was merely a stalling tactic as he forced his brain to concentrate on the spelling of the word and not on his overwhelming desire to jump from the stage and run away.
Away to anywhere but here.
He had already asked the word’s definition but he was sorely familiar with its meaning. Kakorrhaphiophobia: an abnormal fear of failure. How fitting he thought to himself, that this word would determine whether or not he took home the championship today.
He wished he was like the other students on the stage who seemed to be able to spell words with a mellifluous tongue. Every word for him was a constant battle between his talented ability to spell and his irrational fear that he might not spell that word accurately.
When Emanuel was just with his father, a studious man himself who challenged his son to do his best at all things, he performed at an expert level. They had made the choice to homeschool when Emanuel was 5 years old, having learned that the school environment was not conducive to his fear diagnosis. The slightest hint of imperfection would lead to uncontrollable tantrums that teachers were just not prepared to handle.
Emanuel had a gift for spelling that could not contain itself within the walls of their quiet apartment and he longed to show the world he was truly good at something. His father had encouraged him to tryout for local spelling bees in hopes it would help “Manny” overcome his debilitating obstacle.
But when it came to being up in front of others in competitions, his mind turned vacuous and he could barely spit out the letters he recited so well at home. Rooms would spin, an elephant would sit on his chest and his hands would grip the sides of the chair like a clamp to keep him from bolting. Three years of therapy had helped but it was moments like this when it was clear he was still chained to the deviant panic. This was his first year to make it to the finals, all previous years had ended when he could no longer keep from leaving the stage in mental terror while spelling, no matter how innocuous the word.
Emanuel watched the clock on on the judges table ticking down the remaining seconds like a man on death row, he would have to begin spelling or be disqualified. He wiped sweaty hands on his wrinkled brown slacks and drew up closer to the microphone with painful intention.
“K-a-k-o-r-r…h-a-p-h-i-o…p-h-i-a.” Emanuel exhaled forcefully.
The blood was thundering in his ears with such force he did not hear the judge announce that he had spelled the word correctly. Seeing his father burst up with pride from his seat in the 3rd row, clapping and yelling his name gave the confirmation he sought.
Emanuel couldn’t see who came from backstage to hand him the shiny golden trophy but he willed his own hand to reach out and take it from the floating appendage. “We would like to announce that Emanuel Lopez is the grand champion of the 44th Annual Grant County Spelling Bee. Congratulations, Emanuel!”
The room was spinning this time but in an unfamiliar way. Emanuel felt his heart swell as his fellow contestants surrounded him with smiles and hugs. Had he really done it? Had he finally conquered his fear?
As he basked in this strange sensation of having faced his greatest stumbling block and overcome, Emanuel whispered to himself with triumph as tears rolled down from his eyes, “Mama would have been proud.”
The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.Nelson Mandela