Take a chess tournament, with its clash of intellect. Add to it a dash of Little League, pitting America's youth against screaming parents and scowling coaches. Mix in the luck of the lottery. Top it all off with the commercial hype of Bowling for Dollars, and what you have is the grueling American contest called the Spelling Bee.
For the past two days, 286 finalists from grades five through eight, all winners of local and regional competitions involving millions of American school children, have been vying for the title of America’s best speller. After years of drill and memorizing, testing and tension, coaching and cajoling, they’ve made it to the 80th annual Scripps Spelling Bee inWashington, D. C., while outside the hall protesters picketed against English’s irrational spelling.
The Spelling Bee is one of the oldest and least rational of our tests of knowledge, which include everything from the SAT to “Who wants to be a millionaire?” The bee pits youngsters who should be outside playing against one another in a test of trivia where losers often suffer great emotional trauma, and winners get to take home a dictionary and the certain knowledge that they’re about to forget most of the rare and obscure words they’ve spent years learning to spell.
The Spelling Bee tests the ability of school children to spell such useless words as numnah, a kind of saddle blanket, sacciform, which means ‘pouch-like,’ and procacity, meaning ‘disrespect.’
Not to mention the even more hideously obscure laloplegia or forbivorous, or austausch, one of the words a speller in this year’s contest actually got right, once it was defined. Hint: it’s a term from fluid mechanics.
The central rule of the Spelling Bee is unforgiving: once a letter is uttered, it can’t be taken back. This recalls an age when educators were committed to a “no crossing out” philosophy.
So adamantly did teachers want their charges to know the answer before they wrote it down that they even opposed letting students use the latest 19th-century writing technology: wooden pencils with an eraser attached to one end.
Give students these pencils, the teachers moaned, and they’ll become lazy, correcting their writing instead of writing it right the first time round. One hundred years later teachers warned, let kids use the spell checkers on their computers, and they’ll get lazy – no one will ever learn how to spell.
But today, teachers expect students to revise their writing over and over again until it they get it right, and we’re annoyed when our students don’t bother to run the spell-checker before they turn in their work (and by the way, my own computer spell checker has none of the Spelling Bee words mentioned above in its data base).
Does spelling count in the Internet age? Only in the Spelling Bee. Should it count for more? Probably not. The greatest English writers had trouble with spelling. Jane Austen misspelled friendship, the title of her first novel, and Shakespeare seldom spelled his name the same way twice. Many an English teacher is helpless without a dictionary or nowadays, a computer. I still have to check the e’s in precede and proceed. Does practice have an s or a c?
We don’t really know why some people spell well and others don’t. Good memory helps, as does a knowledge of word origins. I would like to think that reading and writing help as well. But good spellers don’t necessarily know what their words mean. And Spelling Bee winners are not known for their success in the literary world.
Yes, the Spelling Bee reflects the emphasis we place on correct spelling in America, and it is good publicity for the English language, which can always do with a boost. It’s proof that spelling counts. But despite the hype that surrounds spelling, it is at best a superficial language skill. We cannot confuse spelling competence with true literacy, which counts even more. That is only gained through reading and writing and not the memorization of lists.
On top of that, most people confess to bad memories of Spelling Bees past. There they were, at a tender age, lined up before an audience of peers, parents and complete strangers, waiting for their chance to flub a familiar word, or be stumped by one they’ve never heard before. It’s worse than scoring an own goal or forgetting your lines in the school play. Many can’t wait to make a mistake so they can sit down. The moment of truth is so nerve-wracking that as soon as they get their word wrong at the National Bee, which 285 of them will certainly do, students are escorted to a room backstage where they are consoled by a former Bee loser and given grief counseling by professional psychologists, something most of us associate not with academic contests but with school shootings.
If we have to have a school competition for the smart, nerdy kids (the kind of kid I was in school, for example), so they can get some of the attention we usually lavish on school athletes, perhaps it’s time to replace the good-old-fashioned Spelling Bee with something a little more humane, and a little more connected with the kinds of reading and writing we all have to do on a daily basis. Or at least let’s drop the psychologists and just let the contestants wear helmets and better padding.