Although I’m not sure how it qualifies it as a sport, and I’ve wondered if it borders on child abuse, I can’t help watching the Scripps National Spelling Bee on ESPN each May. I’m not sure if I merely get a weird kick out of watching kids try to spell some word that hasn’t been used since the Middle Ages or if I have a tiny crush on Dr. Jacques Bailly (the official Spelling Bee pronouncer) but either way, I am a sucker for any athletic event in which victory comes down to a definition, language of origin, alternate pronunciations and whether or not a word can be used in a sentence.
I suspect that my passion for the Bee dates back to the early ‘80s when my third grade teacher used to hold regular classroom spelling bees in order to review for the week’s test. When we exhausted our list of 20 words, Mr. Jackson would revert to previous units in hopes of tripping us up on a term we’d supposedly mastered. Of course when time ran short and a winner needed to be declared, he would pull out The Book: the official word list of the Scripps National Spelling Bee to pick us off until the only people left standing were a pretty blue-eyed blond girl and the only boy crazy enough to actually study The Book in his spare time. Watching the two of them battle it out was high drama, I tell you!
Still, I imagine the pressure is a bit more intense at the national level of competition. Even though there are no corporate sponsors counting on you, no coaches screaming from the sidelines and the threat of injury is rare (save for that 2006 fainting incident) spellers know that there is no room for error. One wrong move, one hesitation, one second-guess and ding! It’s all over. Call me a sicko, but I love it! (Of course I also have the answer printed at the bottom of my screen and nothing to lose.)
While I totally admire these kids and their ability to memorize, I don’t know why they do it. The shelf life for a top-tier speller is exceedingly short. They retire at the age of 14. There is no opportunity to go pro. A speller’s face has never been on the Wheaties box and they aren’t held in the same esteem as other great athletes such as Michael Jordan or Muhammad Ali. Sure the champion gets to meet the President, be on Good Morning America, and wins $30,000 but lets face it, the word they spelled becomes more famous than they ever do!
Aside from Dr. Jacques, I can’t think of another famous speller. (Akeelah doesn’t count; she is a fictional character.) The Bee always has one on hand to offer color commentary to the event, but they hardly rival the likes of John Madden or Al Michaels and I couldn’t tell you their names if my life depended on it. I suppose if they were embroiled in controversy we’d know who they were, but spelling bee scandals are pretty rare. The closest one came in 2006 when a young man was given the word numnah. He mispronounced the word when he recited it (I’ll let you figure out what he said) and seemed utterly relieved to learn that the term referred to a saddle blanket rather than a male medical condition. Other than the occasional word malfunction, spellers are a pretty tame bunch.
I suppose the high SAT score is enough for them and that’s great. Still, if I had successfully spelled humuhumunukunukuapuaa (a small Hawaiian triggerfish) and lived to tell the tale, I would have to do something crazy 10 years later just so journalists would have to put it in the newspapers along with the definition…right next to my mug shot.