My National Spelling Bee

“Dad, stop yelling at the tv,” my daughter said.

“It’s a sporting event, I’m allowed to yell at the tv during sports.” (Is spelling a sport? Well, it is on ESPN therefore it must be. They show car racing, golf, dog contests, and spelling bees, so who am I to argue. Everything is a sport these days and if it is a sport, I am allowed to yell at the contestants.)

“You don’t have to be so mean.”

Okay, she had a point. Siddharth had just misspelled a word I had never heard before. He couldn’t decide if it was an i or an o, he selected the wrong letter, the lady with the hand of death rang the little bell indicating that Siddharth’s day was over, and I enjoyed the moment, “Sit down, Siddharth,” I yelled at the tv. “Go see your momma on the couch.” Siddharth walked across the stage with his head down and met his family on the couch where ESPN provided cookies and a post-contest interview. (I’m not kidding. “So how does it feel to chose the wrong letter?”–“I was confused by the German root of the word and the Latin origin.”–“That’s okay, Siddharth, have a cookie as we all enjoy the schottenfreude of this moment.”)

Siddharth is a 12 year-old kid who had managed to make it all the way to the finals of the National Spelling Bee. He probably spent hundreds of hours studying the origins of words, the roots, and tried to understand why English is such a mess. (My theory on English is that it is the ultimate pirate language. It has raped and pillaged all the other weaker languages and now if a bit of a mess.) All of Siddharth’s hard work took him from some small southern town to the lights and pressure of the National Spelling Bee, it really is an impressive feat and the prototypical in American Dreaming: The kid with immigrant parents, works hard, overcomes everything placed in his way, and becomes the national spelling bee champion, or not.

After Siddharth got knocked out, I tried to tone it down a notch or two, but I couldn’t resist rooting against Gokul. Gokul was the kid who spelled fast, wore his high tops untied, and sat while the other kids spelled like he was made of butter and the chair was making him melt. (Last year, Gokul got knocked out because he couldn’t spell Keirkegaardian. Even my spell check knows that word doesn’t exist.) This year, he spelled each word with an attitude that said both, “My parents are making me do this” and “I’m so smart, I don’t have to study.” He spelled the words so well that he ended up tying for the victory. (Sports that end in a tie are not real sports in my opinion. That’s right, hockey and soccer, I’m talking to you.)

Maybe I’m bitter because every spelling contest I have ever been in ended in the first round. I’m one of those people who cannot see words in their heads. I know there are ways to visual words, but it has always been easier for me to write the word down and then say, “That isn’t right.” In spelling bees that isn’t allowed. In spelling bees it is called cheating. Call it whatever you want, it made me hate the one time each year my teacher would have us line up around the room and ask us to spell a word. I always seemed to know how to spell the rest of the words given to my classmates, but when it came time for me to spell, I choked and ended up walking back to my desk like a dog that just got caught eating a shoe.

These days the National Spelling Bee is dominated by students with difficult to pronounce names and lots of spare time to study. These kids must carry around a dictionary everywhere they go and then when they aren’t looking up English words they must work on memorizing Latin, Greek, German, French,and Fijian.  (Yes, there was a Fijian word, and the girl spelled it correctly. Which blew my tiny mind.) I doubt the National Spelling Bee kids know much about the Kardashians, but I’ll bet a dollar they can spell Kardashian without Googling it. (Unlike me.) Their days are probably filled with homework, school work, and studying. (Homework and studying are different things. You don’t always have homework, but you always have studying. I learned this lesson in my 5th year of college.) I used to get annoyed when the kids would ask all the questions about word origins, alternative pronunciations, and the rest of the technics which seemed like stalling to me. Now, I can see their minds working. They are really trying to figure out if the second syllable is Latin or German.

What really impressed me was that they all seemed to be good sports about everything. They honestly looked bummed when   a fellow contestant couldn’t spell “aflag” which isn’t pronounced anything like it is spelled. They clapped for the contestant’s progress when the bell of death was dinged and they performed valiantly under pressure. I wish I could say the same for my behavior, but we all need room to grow.

21 thoughts on “My National Spelling Bee

  1. I got knocked out on ‘acknowledge’ in 5th grade. I am a terrible, terrible speller. Even with spellcheck, I suck. My current 5th grader is a stellar speller. Not Spelling Bee quality, but still good. My husband and I sat glued to the National Spelling Bee on television one year. Since then, the phrases “Can I have it in a sentence, please?” and “language of origin, please?” have entered our marriage lexicon. As did the word ‘poimenics’. And no, you can’t have a definition and yes, it is spelled correctly despite being underlined by spellcheck–;-)


      1. Something to do with shepherds and sheep and pastures apparently…Poi is a classic crossword clue though, isn’t it? Like obi. Good Scrabble word too.


  2. Can you make up words? I have gotten quite good a that with the Spanglish and the automatic spell correction on my phone and kindle.


  3. My favorite post of yours I’ve read so far, made me guffaw and buck here a bit on my sofa, nice work! Good entertainment for a Friday, thank you Jon.


  4. ESPN fans here! Even when the competition is spelling. You wrote,”Sports that end in a tie are not real sports in my opinion. That’s right, hockey and soccer, I’m talking to you.” <- THIS! Extra innings for me, please 😀


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