On Why I Love the Spelling Bee

Spelling Bee

Yesterday, two new co-champions of the Scripps National Spelling Bee were named. Sriram Hathwar, an eighth-grader from Painted Post, New York and Ansun Sujoe, a seventh-grader from Fort Worth, Texas won the title by spelling the words ‘stichomythia’ and ‘feuilleton’ respectively. (Playing along, I failed at spelling most of the words the finalists of the bee spelled.) These two, however, did not dominate the story of the bee.

Jacob Williamson of Cape Coral, Florida seemed to get more coverage than the actual winners of the bee in the news today. He jumped, pumped his fists, and screamed his excitement at every correct spelling.

Then, in one of the final rounds, Jacob got the word ‘kabaragoya.’

“I know it. I know it. I totally know it!” he screamed. The audience laughed. Seconds later, we saw him spell the word beginning with the letter “C,” and I gasped as the correct spelling of the word appeared on the screen. My heart sank. The pronouncer gave him the correct spelling, and Jacob walked off stage. His glasses slipped off the top of his nose, and he sniffed his nose to push them back up to his face.

Minutes later, SBnation.com tweeted the following.

Today, I had a conversation with a good friend of mine who expressed disapproval of broadcasting the bee nationally, of putting so much pressure on these kids, and creating a spectacle of their failures. Moreover, he expressed concern to me about the ways in which the world around would make these young spellers fodder for jokes, that they would be laughed at.

Taking my friend’s very valid concerns into consideration, however, I still cannot help but love the spelling bee. These 11 to 14 year-old kids worked hard to learn etymologies. What most impresses me about the Spelling Bee is how young people connect word origins to think about how these words are constructed into specific spellings.

As a little girl, one of my oldest memories is looking at a newspaper that my father had discarded and realizing I could understand the sounds that letters made. Growing up, I adored learning the rules of spelling and learning how these rules could be broken. Mastering these skills as a kid made me feel confident and smart, and discovering language helped me to learn how to express myself through writing.

As I got older, however, when I was the same age as these spellers, I never felt confident for knowing how to use language. I never felt self-respect for knowing how to spell a word. Getting good grades me feel uncool, not accepted by my peers, and just plain lonely. I didn’t want to be a “geek” or a “nerd.” For me, my knowledge of language as an elementary and middle school student made me feel “Othered.”

For me, the Spelling Bee represents the ways in which “nerds” can be applauded for their hard work and talent. We should consider that these spellers know how the Germanic roots of language differ from Spanish roots and the Japanese roots. We should consider that these spellers think about how what a word means can help them think about how a word is constructed. We should consider that these spellers are feeling nervous and excited to get to showcase their hard work.

Much of the Spelling Bee coverage on television and social media yesterday and today seemed to focus on laughing at these young people or criticizing Jacob’s confidence. Much of the criticism of the Spelling Bee blamed the spectacle of the broadcast for allowing people to make fun of Jacob’s excited proclamations, his nasal voice, and the glasses slipping from his face.

Today, when I see young people of that age, I think of myself as an awkward pubescent pre-teen.  I think of feeling different. I could never speak loud enough for my teachers to hear me. I feared having the right answer; I feared having the wrong answer. Seeing these spellers, however, I feel relief that I was fortunate enough to have the support and love that helped me to become a confident adult because I had parents, a big brother, teachers, and friends who encouraged, loved, and supported my love of language and writing.

I love the Bee because I love seeing how the spellers have proud parents and older siblings, who love them whether or not they win. I love the Spelling Bee because the spellers are genuine and proud and excited to get to showcase their hard work. I love the Spelling Bee because it is exciting to feel celebrated for being hard-working and smart.

The problem isn’t Jacob’s hubris. The problem isn’t that we broadcast the Bee. The problem lies in the people who make fun of them. We should focus our criticism on people who condescend, belittle, and laugh at these spellers.

I, for one, am an admirer of Jacob, Sriram, and Ansun. Like them, I want to improve my skills at understanding words and language. It seems to me that they know how to construct words better than most of the rest of us – the words we use to communicate. After all, isn’t our ability to use words what make us all human?