Jacob Shulman, foreground, and Miles Shannon prepare for auditions at… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)
It was pretty clear who the amateurs were on Saturday at the Los Angeles County Regional Spelling Bee.
The pronouncer -- that would be me -- left the secret list of spelling words uncovered on the table during a water break. The judges once forgot to ring the bell -- the signal for a misspelled word -- when a contestant made a mistake. We had to interrupt the final round for a private confab about protocol.
The parents, on the other hand, were as prepared as their well-practiced kids.
One mother challenged my rendition of a Japanese word misspelled by her son. I said koh-en rather than koh-ahn, she said. One means park, the other is a paradox used in Zen Buddhism meditation.
Later, a father leapt from his front-row seat to protest a procedural point, launching a minor imbroglio.
The parents were polite but vibrating from accumulated angst.
And the experience left me shaken a bit, wondering whether we overzealous parents are warping our dutiful kids.
Until I read the acknowledgment written by the contest's winner, who will compete at the National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., in June.
"If there is anyone I would like to thank for my success in spelling, it is my parents," wrote Jeremiah B. Cortez, an eighth-grader at Glendale's Toll Middle School. "They have always been there to help me study words and make me think about the words I read."
Children's competitions are tough on parents.
Maybe it's the time and money we spend -- like the mothers we wrote about last week who rise before dawn and spend hours shivering in far-off ice rinks to develop the talents of Olympic wannabes.
Or the emotional investment we make in their dreams -- like the parents waiting out their teenagers' tryouts at the Los Angeles High School of the Arts admission auditions last month.
They clustered nervously in classrooms marked "parent waiting rooms" while Principal George Simpson tried to reassure them. The same questions were asked again and again, making clear the bond between parents and kids: When do we hear? What happens if we don't get in?
I circled the room trying to conduct interviews, but almost no one was willing to risk saying something that might sabotage their kids.
"I think it's probably easier to get into Harvard," said Ron Irwin, whose daughter was auditioning for theater. "At least you can figure out what they're looking for."
Success in the arts -- and in the spelling bee -- owes a lot to hard work and talent, but also to chance and luck.
"We know it when we see it," is the best standard the arts school's dance department head could share with me. And pity the kid in the spelling bee who got stuck with "koan" when the surrounding words were "eclectic" and "azure" -- in English, at least.
We wish we could level the playing field; ensure a payoff for all the work they -- and we -- have done.
I could sympathize with that father who bounded out of his seat at the spelling bee last weekend.
It took years on the soccer sidelines for me to learn to walk away, to honor my daughter's wish that I please, please not embarrass her by becoming one of those parents who strides out onto the field to pick a fight with the referee.
I only recently realized that she was honoring my wish by strapping on those shin guards every week. She got tired of playing long before I let her quit.
I spent weekends with my daughter, traveling to games and tournaments. And if the love of soccer didn't stick, well, the closeness between mother and daughter did.
Jeremiah didn't laugh or pump his fist when I pronounced his final word "correct." But he smiled down at his dad, who leapt from his seat -- again -- bounded toward the stage and hugged his son.