#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. 

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