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How do you spell ‘delight’?

February 25, 2021

When I was a kid, I was a lousy student. Woeful at math. My penmanship was atrocious. Being a rambunctious type, I recall Mr. Aron, my fourth grade teacher, adding a column to my report card–in ink, natch: ‘Self Control’, ostensibly to highlight my shortcomings in this area. Low grades every quarter.

Yet another grade school subject–spelling. I was bad. I think I spelled that correctly.

But that doesn’t mean I didn’t wish to improve. I did graduate, after all, so I must have. My spelling has benefited greatly now that every word processing program has built-in spell check. That almost feels like cheating though.

Which is why I find what takes place every summer in Washington DC so delightful. I’m talking about the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

We’ve all heard about spelling bees. Usually held at a local school comprised of area students, none of whom are older than 14. Basically mostly 8th graders. The best at your school would typically go head-to-head with the best from other schools. The winner there would move to a regional competition, where the victor would catapult to the national championship. There, the event would be televised on ESPN–the sports network–the final rounds during evening prime time. It obviously is a big deal.

A big deal to some people, anyway. I’m one of them. Precisely for the things it is not.

It is not March Madness college basketball. It has zero the brute force of football. There is little grace like one displays in figure skating or gymnastics. Unlike downhill skiing or car racing, speed is notably absent. Death is hardly being defied here.

None of that matters to me.

To me these students, many of whom appear slight, geeky or otherwise awkward looking in their stiff, ill-fitting polo shirts, are superstars. Scrawny, bespeckled, maybe a bit chubby–none of these kids are likely to be voted homecoming king or queen.

But this is their Super Bowl. This is their Olympic games. This is their Indy 500.

By the time they reach this national stage, they have mastered the nuances of tens of thousands of different words and their Merriam-Webster definitions, along with their parts of speech, language of origin and any alternate pronunciations. They must pass round after round of carefully chosen words that you and I might never have even heard of before. And they must spell that word correctly the first time. Mistake an ‘i’ for an ‘e’? Forget how some Greek root words can be co-opted to other dialects? What about neologisms and how words can change their usage over time? Get just one letter wrong and you hear the most polite “ding!” of a bell. Sadly, it means your competition is over.

If it all seems “Greek” to you, you’re not alone.

But to me, the English language is fascinating in that there are so many different words, some with the most bizzare definitions or spellings. I thrill to every word that Jacques Bailly, the Bee’s official announcer, recites to the contestants. Koinonia? Pococurante? Hypozeuxis? Yeah, I’ve never heard of these contest-winning words, either. Can’t even pronounce them.

These young people work so hard, so diligently, with such dedication–years of study and sacrifice–to cram this esoteric knowledge into their heads.

You can tell by watching them as they grapple with how to spell the words. Some ask for the pronunciation more than once. Others ask to hear the word used in a sentence. A few take their plastic name tag hung around their neck and use it to write with their finger, tracing how they think the word might look.

That so many former Spelling Bee champions become doctors, engineers or scientists should surprise no one. The effort needed to succeed and excel in these disciplines is well known. I’d be lying to say I wasn’t just a skosh envious. Their focus is intense. Mesmerizing. I want them to get the word right. I wince when they hear that bell, slump their shoulders and are escorted off stage. By the looks on their faces and sometimes the tears on their cheeks, it is heart-wrenching. They try so hard.

And maybe it’s just because I identity with these kids. Not because of my spelling prowess, though I certainly looked like a few of them. They probably had better self control, too. The meek shall inherit the earth. They may as well because they can spell everything on it.

These kids are rock stars to me

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One Comment
  1. Peggy permalink

    Love this one….fun way to start my day….have to admit…not as wrapped up in these spelling kids as you are…however…not to brag but…..I always won the spelling bee in 4th grade….although didn’t get words like these kids do. The English language must be a tough one to learn for foreigners….so many words have different meanings….and you didn’t point out that it’s always the Indian kids who seem to win…pretty pc of you😄….and spell check drives me crazy…substitutes words for my fat fingers…and sends out some really weird things if I don’t use my Peggy check.

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