#HotSportsTakes on the Bee

I competed in the National Spelling Bee three times, I placed 3rd twice, I love the Bee, and I appreciate the kinds of skills it gave me. I also love the high profile it has gotten in the last decade and the spotlight these amazing kids have been given. I saw just now a post by Nate Scott at USA Today declaring “shenanigans” on the new rules which commit the apparently grave sin of using scores from a vocabulary test to winnow the 31 semifinalists to 12 finalists for tonight, even when many semifinalists had not spelled any words wrong in the competition. Here’s the core of his post:

You want to cut spellers out of the competition? Make the words tougher. Don’t fall back on some pre-match VOCAB test to kick kids out. This would be like if they ended the legendary Isner-Mahut tennis match early, saying Isner won because he juggled three tennis balls longer a few hours before the match. Or something. THERE ISN’T EVEN AN APPLICABLE ANALOGY, THAT’S HOW PREPOSTEROUS THIS IS.

Luckily, most of the big time spellers stuck around, including my main man Tejas (You got this Tejas). However, one of the favorites to win the whole thing, Vanya Shivashankar (sister to 2009 champion Kavya), was eliminated. Because she didn’t do well on the vocabulary quiz before the Bee.

Overall, it’s actually thrilling to me that a media outlet would generate this kind of fun live-blog, sports-type response, which I know is meant somewhat in jest. That said, I have to contest Nate’s objection, while still conveying that I understand it is meant as a casual viewer of the bee.

While English spelling has its systems and rules adopted from mainly Latin, Greek, and select other languages, there is a high degree of arbitrariness in “correct” spelling. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s the nature of written language that tries to codify vocalizations. As the Spelling Bee has increased in stature, and even by the time I competed in the early 90s, skill and preparation had reached such a level that the words that would actually determine a champion were far removed from usage by anyone, let alone middle school students.

The question often arose, both from me and others, “Why learn to spell completely obscure words whose meaning you’ll rarely if ever know and use?” It’s a valid question. The whole point of spelling as an educational exercise that benefits kids is both to give them a skill valuable in itself and, even more significantly, consolidate their grip over language, its use, its power, and beauty, in the service of expressing themselves more fluidly. This latter skill is the ultimate goal, and 20 years later, I can say, an infinitely valuable gift I could not cherish enough.

Nate Scott (and Twitter) are upset that an “irrelevant” un-televised test determines who among the elitest of the elite will compete under his gaze tonight. As a viewer of a sporting event, that’s completely understandable. But he is right that the tennis analogy is inapt.

This competition, at its core, is about offering an opportunity to amazing children who have expressed passion and effort. I am not some pedagogical naif that expects that ESPN, Scripps, and the Bee are pure of heart in this educational mission. They have profit, viewership, and time considerations at the core of their partnership, in addition to the kids and the competition. When I competed, we did simply spell until one champion remained. 1994, when I placed 3rd again, was the first year ESPN televised the Bee. Maybe the Bee will return to that format if this kind of objection begins to affect interest in the competition.

But don’t knock the Bee for using a high-level test of the most relevant skill to determine who competes for this prize. The sooner these talented kids grasp meaning in addition to form, the sooner they make definitions important in addition to the spelling, the greater their grasp of language will be, the richer their lives will be. I admire the Bee for making this deeper education a priority for contestants as well.

Again, I don’t pretend that time considerations and television haven’t dictated this kind of adjustment, probably above the education of the kids. But I am not sorry that the Bee found a way to do that in a way that emphasizes a much greater value than the viewers’ sense of satisfaction in this competition aspect of their mission. I am not sorry, Nate, that your one day of pleasure in viewing the very last phase of a sliver of these children’s education isn’t the gladiatorial combat of extremely specialized skill you’ve come to expect from sports. I guarantee the kids understand the relevance of the vocabulary test, and they will take more away from the Bee for having prepared for it as a high priority.

I also know that as soon as the kids’ real welfare seems to be sacrificed for the sake of the competition sports writers have no problem suddenly decrying “exploitation of good smart children” in service of the competition. I just want to point out that the exploitation is what they scream for right until that point they happen to become aware of it, as it suits them of course.

I care about these kids, I am one of those kids, and what I took from the Spelling Bee was a love of words, not a love of spelling for spelling’s sake. You’re right, Nate, it’ not tennis. It’s their minds, their lives.

Enjoy the Bee tonight, everyone. And even if you don’t, remember what is important about it.

*This post reflects minor edits from the original post, to correct for grammar and clarity. 

I Remember

I was first overcome by nostalgia when I was 8 years old, oddly. It was a deep nostalgia, the nostalgia of a much older person. Not the kind that idealizes the past, but one that still mourns its loss.

We were moving, from the house we’d lived in my whole (8 years of ) life to the one I’m writing from now while visiting home. The image that sticks in my head is walking down the hallway of the empty house the night we finally left. It’s probably a trick of memory and time but I feel I’ve always been able to inhabit myself exactly as I was at that moment, seeing things from the same height, in the same body, with the same emotions.

I see the thin hall, just wider than my arms could reach, under a light made harsh by white painted walls, reflecting dully off dark wood floor. My bedroom door just ahead to the left. A darkened den behind, a darkened left turn in the hallway ahead, leading to other darkened rooms. We were all doing some sort of last walk through and I was alone briefly. It was weird to wear shoes in the house, we never did normally.

Heaviness filled me up. These walls and rooms that seemed to be just walls and rooms now, stripped bare, contained pieces of me, of all of us, of whatever I had done in them, that I wouldn’t get back. The house would keep part of them forever, but never show any trace.

From what I can gather, I have abnormally good recall for certain things. I haven’t really figured out the pattern of why certain things stick, why I can remember what side of the page I read some fact on, when my memory for far more useful things is probably average. This is not a complaint. Weirdly specific recall has served me quite well, except for maybe the times it seems creepy when I might remember some offhand detail about someone I met in passing.

But it also means I’ve spent a lot of time thrown unexpectedly into myself as I was once, prompted by places, by music, by any number of sensory combinations that might tether me to another time. Coming home naturally compounds that sense. Having lived other lives away from here since I moved away after high school, it feels impossible that the same walls and floors can contain my parents and me as we are now. I have this feeling that the amount of experience the walls have seen us through should have altered their fundamental composition, so that we can say, these are the walls of 2014, for the people we are in 2014.

The reality, that these are the same walls we moved into in 1988, as the people we were in 1988, somehow feels far stranger than my ridiculous disbelief.

The Real MVPs

In my almost 34 years I’ve heard mothers referred to as “the real MVPs” countless times, but it’s never been delivered with more truth than Kevin Durant did a few days ago. Watch the whole speech to grasp its full power, but he addresses his mother directly starting at the 23:00 mark. For my mom, for my sisters, for my friends, for myself, I’ve transcribed that part of the speech below. Mom, we love you so much, you make us so proud, and so incredibly thankful, every moment.

Happy Mother’s Day.

And last, my Mom. I don’t think you know what you did. You had my brother when you were 18 years old. Three years later I came out. The odds were stacked against us. Single parent with two boys by the time you were 21 years old. Everybody told us we weren’t supposed to be there, we moved from apartment to apartment, by ourselves. One of the best memories I have was we moved into our, our first apartment. No bed, no furniture, and we all just sat in the living room and just hugged each other. ‘Cause that’s what when we thought we made it. And when something good happens to you, I don’t know about you guys, but I tend to look back to what brought me here. You’d wake me up in the middle of the night, in the summertime, makin’ me run up the hill, makin’ me do pushups, screaming at me from the sideline at my games at 8 or 9 years old. We wasn’t supposed to be here. But you made us believe. You kept us off the streets. Put clothes on our backs, food on the table. When you didn’t eat, to make sure we ate, went to sleep hungry. You sacrificed for us. You the real MVP.

[Standing ovation.]