Spellbinding

Spellbinding

When I got home from Rita Gentile’s school concert (which was superb, by the way) my wife Kathy was planted in front of the TV, and – if you’ll pardon the pun – utterly spellbound watching the final minutes of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. I’m not sure how many young spellers were in the running at the start,  but by this point in the proceedings they were down to the final three. . .  and the level of difficulty in these words was truly brutal.

Some random observations.  .  .  (do I have any other kind?)

It was so neat to see this kind of attention given to a competition which doesn’t celebrate how slender your waist is or how well you ape the typical top 40 singer or how popular you are among your fellow castaways – but rather your smarts.   And I love how there is something so very old- fashioned about a spelling bee.  Yes, you can throw a few graphics on the screen,  but mostly it’s exactly the same way a spelling bee would have been conducted 150 years ago.  There is something ageless about it.

It was nice to see a mix of boys and girls at the very top – a mix of ethnic backgrounds – a mix of public school, private school, and home-school education – as well as competitors who seemed fairly friendly with one another.  (This was not Andre the Giant versus Abdullah the Butcher.)

One thing I would tweak is that the word is given and then the spellers have a long list of additional information that they can request . . . definition,  derivation,  part of speech, alternate pronunciations, etc. . . . . and that slows things down a bit.  In the recent spelling bees in which I’ve participated,  the word was pronounced,  a definition given, spoken again – and then it’s time to spell it.  I like how that keeps things moving along.  Otherwise,  it’s starts turning into baseball where you do a little too much standing around and waiting for something to happen.

By the way, the young lady to the right of the photograph above got under my nerves because with nearly every single word, she would ask the person who had just read off the word to her “was that gohn-KWELL-yu-kin or gohn- KWELL-yu-ken?”  Over and over and over and over again.  As someone who was the word reader for the most recent Kenosha County Spelling Bee,  I can tell you how irritating that would be to have a contestant consistently second-guessing the pronunciation you just rendered.   (I must confess to being pleased when she exited – becoming, in effect, the bronze medalist.)   The other two I liked a lot, and the young woman (in white) who took it all had the interesting quirk of slowly writing every word into the palm of her hand before spelling it for the judges.  An odd technique but hard to argue with when you win the whole thing!

Mostly as I watched this,  it made me think back to a spelling bee I was in back in junior high. And like it was yesterday, I can remember going down on Centigrade. . . because I capitalized it.   (You capitalize Fahrenheit because it’s someone’s name – but not Centigrade.  Long after I’ve descended into the gray mists of senility,  I will remember that . . . . to the day I depart this earth!)   And Marshall went down on Chlorophyll by putting only one “L” on the end.  That was 35 years ago,  but it still stings.  Maybe when you do sports as a young person,  you taste a lot of winning and losing and the losses fade in significance if for no other reason than because there are so many after awhile.  (Although a painful loss – like dropping the game-winning touchdown pass – would never fade.)   But for guys like Marshall and me,  the Decorah Junior High School Spelling Bee was an altogether rare opportunity to strut our academic stuff in a public competition.   It was a sad defeat for both of us; we would have done anything short of taking steroids to beat eventual champ Steve Olson . .  .

35 years later,  it’s still Grrrrrrrrrrrrrr. . . .