Wednesday, June 05, 2002

The gods of Spelling

Last week, I watched a couple of rounds of the Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee, and I didn't come away with a good feeling. I've never really had much of an opinion about these things before, but seeing a couple of rounds really got me thinking. It's clear that what began as a reasonable endeavor (promoting good spelling, and giving schoolchildren an opportunity for some healthy academic competition) has grown to be a monster of an event, the prime focus of many of the competitors lives. One of the commentators (yes, there are multiple spelling bee commentators! spoke about how a certain 6th grader in the competition had now made the commitment to train year-round, no longer taking summers off. These kids get up there, and have intensity that indicates how much of their young lives revolve around this pursuit. I always remembered spelling bees to be fairly simple - hear the word, say it, spell it, say it again. This all took place in a classroom or hall, with a couple of teacher-types to administer and judge, and participants and parents watching.

The simplicity is gone. The whole thing reminds me of national-level youth gymnastics and figure skating. A fine pursuit within reason, useful to learn many things, including discipline and grace under pressure. But just like the emotionally scarred 14 year-old gymnastics champions, it looks like the pressure has been turned up a whole lot higher than is beneficial for the development of those youngsters. The national bee is the culmination of local and regional competitions, and the setting is reminiscent of a senate subcommittee hearing. There's a whole panel of judges, a big audience, the esteemed official "pronouncer," commentators and cameras for national cable broadcast (on ESPN, of all networks). One of the comments about a particular 11 year old was "This kid shows a lot of grit to return and come this far after his humiliation in a middle round last year." Huh?

And it's downright scary watching these little spelling masters at work. After the word is read, each contestant methodically asks a series of "clarifying questions," such as: "What is the country of origin?" "Are there alternative pronunciations?" "Are there alternative definitions?" "Is the root "pre" from the Latin meaning before?" and more - and this series of questions happens for every word. Just like competitive bodybuilding takes the useful concept of fitness to a bizarre and often unhealthy extreme, here spelling is life for these kids. Eventually, after all the steps, the clarifications, the concentration, the steel-faced youngsters finally rattle off the spellings:

And when they miss, they are led to the "comfort room", absolutely necessary in the pressure cooker that is the National Spelling Bee.


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