Thursday, May 28, 2009
We Heart the Spelling Bee
Over the holiday weekend, my husband Mowgli (not his real name) ran into reruns of last year’s Scripps National Spelling Bee, which could only mean one thing: it’s time for this year’s bee.
Go ahead, call us geeky, we don’t mind. We know what you may not: the national bee is an amazing piece of theater.
ESPN aired the semifinal round last night, and by the time ABC televises the finals (tonight, 8 p.m. Eastern/ 7 p.m. Central), the remaining 9- to 15-year-olds will have been whipped into a nervous froth of adolescent yearning. But it’s all good, clean fun: they’re competing for brainiac glory, and money.
The top prize includes a savings bond, $2,800 worth of reference works, a scholarship and an engraved trophy as well as a check for $30,000. If you take second place, you receive $12,500. Even kids who misspell in the first round of the semifinals get $250.
Being a former rule-writer, I checked those out. Here’s my favorite: “The speller must not have repeated fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, or eighth grade for the purpose of extending spelling bee eligibility.” Imagine, for a moment, the hilarity of exactly how one would intentionally repeat a grade in order to qualify for a spelling bee. You’re ridiculously smart, and yet, and yet, advancing a grade will erase forever your last shot at holding the big, shiny trophy… oh, the agony!
The statistics about the spellers are fascinating, and sometimes counterintuitive; 44 are only children, 63.5% of them attend public schools, there is one third-grader, and 30 spellers are related to a previous national finalist.
And here’s one to chew on: "English is not the first language of 33 spellers, and 117 spellers speak languages other than English." Imagine that for a moment. Create a picture of yourself at 12, 13 or 14, in France, on a stage, on national TV, spelling French words. Merde!
But as you may have guessed, it’s the kids of Indian descent that really float my husband’s boat. When they're at the mike, he likes to reminisce about his own school days and imagine how they prepared, especially when they cut to the parents’ section of the stage. It's a nice bit of side theater for me, seeing my husband dissolve in fits of laughter while imagining the arduous path that led these kids to the bee. For a taste of this, you can check out the documentary "Spellbound."
And yes, in case you’re wondering, we did watch the reruns; we were hoping to see this moment again: