I can’t help myself. When ESPN airs its promos for the National Spelling Bee, I feel compelled to tune in. Mostly happy childhood memories from my own inborn spelling talent make me the perfect audience member for any event involving correctly arranging the letters of words – just for the sport of it.
There is, however, a frequent niggle in my brain that the 21st century version of this traditional academic competition differs vastly from the initial contest in 1925. The televised show currently resembles a modern sporting event with commentators and a sideline interviewer quizzing middle schoolers mere seconds after they have misspelled themselves into elimination. Commercial breaks, glitz, and confetti abound. And when I watched in 2019 – the pandemic wiped out last year’s contest – eight champions were crowned because the adults could not organize a wordlist challenging enough to narrow the field further.
Thus, on Thursday night I was prepared to criticize. Pleasantly surprised, however, I found myself inspired by what I saw – inspiration having nothing to do with a trophy and $50,000 for the champion.
I was impressed by the 11 contestants who had survived nine preliminary rounds during which 198 other regional champions from five countries were unable to make the cut. I was also fascinated that so many of them visualized words by finger-writing them into their palms or on their number placards, with one girl typing into the air.
I was also impressed by how much these students already knew about the words pronounced to them: language of origin, part of speech, root words. Several contestants simply asked for all additional information at once rather than posing specific questions as in past years. But, by golly, they knew word structure, language patterns in several languages – modern and ancient – and combining forms. And most of them had seen most of the words being pronounced.
Personally, I was chagrined by the wordlist used to determine the 2021 champion. Sacrificing 30 words of my weekly word limit, I am sharing the words from Thursday evening, the ones the kids spelled correctly in boldface:
trophallactic, phylloxera, trochiline, platylepadid, gewgaw, rolamite, archedictyon, euxinic, torticollis, heliconius, Shedu, ambystoma, theodolite, ancistroid, chrysal, cloxacillin, regolith, psychagogic, duchesse, thanatophidia, athanor, depreter, consertal, fidibus, haltere, Nepeta, fewtril, retene, neroli oil, Murraya
Although I recognized parts of these words, for the first time in my National Spelling Bee viewing experience and unlike those 11 finalists, I had NEVER seen ANY of these words – not even one! By the way, Spell-Check is still struggling with several of them!
The impressiveness of the evening morphed into inspiration before Zaila Avant-garde spelled her way to the fame. The 14-year-old showed herself to be natural and exuberant even before she jumped for joy at spelling the winning word.
The broad smile revealing full-on braces belonged to the eighth grader from Louisiana and first-ever African-American winner of the Bee. Zaila later described her inspiration: the story of MacNolia Cox, a young girl from Akron who went to the national contest in Washington in 1936, one of the first Black entrants ever. She finished in fifth place, but her experience was of the segregated kind: separate overnight accommodations from the white kids, a separate table from the white kids at the banquet – the list of indignities was long.
Eighty-five years later, Zaila Avant-garde is now in the position to inspire others. This firecracker of a girl holds three Guinness World Records for basketball handling. Harvard, the WNBA, the NBA, and NASA are among her goals – although since Thursday she has also received a full-ride scholarship to LSU. Equally talented in math, she has been focusing on competitive spelling for just a couple of years – and last year she read 1,000 chapter books.
Zaila, who might want to study neuroscience or gene-editing, will be joining my favorite age group of high school students to teach, many of whom have not yet included “impossible” on their spelling or vocabulary lists. This young woman with the winning attitude, and a trophy to prove it, is already inspiring lots of young girls all over the country – and one old lady in Ohio!
Speaking of inspiration, right before my deadline I ran across a video of Jim Tressel addressing the participants attending the Charg1ing Heisman Elite football camp this week at the former Urbana University. Troy Smith and Braxton Miller have come to town, but the former Buckeye coach and current president of Youngstown State University was also there. I hope everyone in the audience for the opening session was listening intently as President Tressel urged three winning behaviors:
~ Have an attitude of gratitude. Be thankful. The ability to count your blessings rather than lamenting your hardships will make it easier to handle anything that comes your way in life.
~ Set the bar high. Have great expectations for yourself. Be the best person, the best friend, the best student, the best parent, the best citizen, the best football player you can possibly be.
~ Always find ways to help and benefit others. If you make a difference for others, you will be well on your way to becoming the best person, the best friend, the best student, the best football player you are striving to be.
Tressel’s inspirational words certainly apply to all of us. Three profound concepts that, if practiced by us all, would make the world such a better place…
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.