Thursday night I tuned in to ESPN anticipating an evening of spirited competition. Ten rivals vying for a coveted trophy stood prepared to engage in tense combat.
I was not watching French Open tennis or the Golden State Warriors trying to beat Oklahoma City. No, it was my favorite tournament of the year: the Scripps National Spelling Bee!
My sister and I have always been good spellers, and we loved our elementary spelling workbooks. A dream of compartmentalization, they featured daily exercises with Wednesday’s trial test and the final test every Friday. It was my sister’s fervent desire to fill in the final test slot; alas, she always reached perfection by mid-week.
I regularly let down my classmates during recess by being the slowest at Red Rover or striking out in softball. Thank goodness for spelling bee days!
Those grade school contests were the purest form of today’s national tournament. One by one, students around the classroom spelling the next word on the list sat down – until only the winner remained standing.
Spelling bees have evidently been around since before the Declaration of Independence; Benjamin Franklin was a proponent. Back then, the good spellers were sent out to play while the bad spellers had to clean the schoolhouse – a far cry from the $40,000 and an appearance on “LIVE with Kelly” awarded Thursday night.
My sister and I were skilled enough to appear three times each in the county spelling bee and to claim one victory apiece. In my sixth-and eighth-grade appearances, “unconscious” and “antidote” sent me packing. I became champion in the seventh grade when the other girl missed “tonnage.” My sister won during her eighth-grade year with “silhouette.”
In our respective years we moved on to the Central Ohio Spelling Bee held in the Student Union at Ohio State University. Sadly, our dreams of national fame were dashed early when neither of us passed the 50-word written test to advance to the oral round.
With experience in two languages, I have concluded that correct spelling is a skill, similar to but no more or less important than any other ability. Good spellers are usually born with inner “wiring” that allows consistent accuracy. They cannot really explain their talent and may even take it for granted.
The problem is that spelling in English can be unpredictable, even downright wacky. Shaky spellers throw up their collective hands in disgust when confronted with words alike in appearance but different in pronunciation: bough – cough – dough – rough – through. And should we expect people to spell according to poetry: “i before e, except after c”?
Over the years spelling has not changed, but habits and attitudes certainly have. Computer Spell Check programs have become the calculators of language as we type. We need not bother our brains, what with built-in spelling suggestions and automatic corrections. Fewer people concern themselves with correct spelling anyway; text message abbreviations are seeping into other forms of communication with increasing frequency.
Change also abounds in spelling bees. I cannot remember reading in the UDC about a county spelling bee this year. It would not surprise me if intense state testing pressures have pushed schools to eliminate the tradition.
The national spelling lists contain more difficult words each year, too. Winning words in the 1920’s included “albumen” and “fracas.” National champions during my junior high years scored victory with “eczema” and “Chihuahua.”
Of the forty some words pronounced during Thursday’s final 24 rounds, I recognized three or four. Meanwhile, the eventual co-champs breezed through dauntingly obscure words that included “taoiseach,” “promyshlennik,” and “gerrhosaurid” – which I had to copy from the TV screen.
The national competition just outside Washington, D.C. had all the hallmarks of any sporting event covered by ESPN. Back stories, commercial breaks, play-by-play analysts as well as “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” were all part of a production I found too slick and glossy.
But I watched. I admired the mostly middle school kids efficiently handle so many words I had never seen or heard. They expertly inquired about word origins and parts of speech and asked for amusing example sentences wryly delivered by the longtime pronouncer.
Their spelling styles intrigued me, too. Some participants outlined letters on their number placards or in their hands as they visualized the words pronounced to them. Some spelled at an almost reckless clip, while others proceeded with slow deliberation. And I still remember the 1997 champion who shouted every letter of “euonym” before jumping up and down in victorious jubilation.
The best memory of my “bee” years actually connects me loosely to sports. Many of the modern national spellers have coaches. I had one, too: my mother, herself an excellent speller with an extensive vocabulary.
After my runner-up experience as a sixth-grader, Mother decided to help me prepare for the next year. Using the Scripps-Howard wordlist booklet and her trusty typewriter, she daily prepared for me a set of words and their meanings. Right before bedtime she opened the blue, three-ring notebook of study lists and listened to me spell and define the words for the day. I credit our sessions for my seventh-grade victory, and even today I recognize the words I practiced all those years ago as “spelling bee words.”
I still treasure that late-night time I shared with my mother – learning to “bee” a good speller.
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.