The annual National Spelling Bee is underway. Yesterday the 275 contestants took a written spelling test. Today they started spelling words on the stage. Fifty of the kids will advance to the semifinals tomorrow, and tomorrow night at 8:30 p.m. ESPN — ESPN! — will broadcast the final rounds.
I was a good speller as a kid. I used to enjoy the spelling contests between classroom teams in grade school, and I competed in at least one all-school spelling bee that I can remember. But I never had the kind of dedication to spelling prowess that the kids competing in the National Spelling Bee have displayed. They spend hours studying lists of words, reading dictionaries, memorizing spellings, and developing strategies to aid in the recall process. As a result, they can spell words that even the most well-educated among us would likely never use in normal conversation.
You can tell the National Spelling Bee is a throwback event by its name. Are any other contests called “bees” anymore? But the format is tried and true, with the kid leaving her chair to stand up behind the microphone, hearing the word, perhaps asking for a definition and to have the word used in a sentence, and then giving it her best shot and hoping she doesn’t have to slink back to her chair in failure. The contestants don’t do it because it is cool, or because champion spellers will make millions of dollars in professional leagues. No, they do it because they like being good spellers and like the idea of seeing whether they just might be this year’s champion. And that, I think, makes the National Spelling Bee cool after all.