Spelling Bee Makes the Grade

In 1925, the Louisville Courier-Journal had this bold idea, they wanted to “help students improve their spelling, increase their vocabularies, learn concepts, and develop correct English usage.”(link) Last night, I watched this idea come to life again in the 78th Scripps National Spelling Bee.

Did you know it takes four commentators to cover the event? I didn’t catch every person’s qualifications, but one gentleman happened to be a contestant about 20 years ago. ABC also produced short vignettes of some Top-15 contestants. The whole event had definite overtones of the Olympics. However, the producers forgot to share the secret with the eventual winner.

Evan M. O’Dorney won with the word serrefine (df. small forceps). In a most un-Olympic fashion, Evan didn’t gush about how much he loved spelling and the spelling bee:

“My favorite things to do were math and music, and with the math I really like the way the numbers fit together,” he said. “And with the music I like to let out ideas by composing notes—and the spelling is just a bunch of memorization.” (link)

When asked if he liked the spelling bee any better now that he’d won?

“Are you saying I’m supposed to like it more? Yeah, I do a little bit.” (link)

Here’s the thing I love about Evan and the other kids who participate in spelling bees: they are so unabashedly happy being themselves and knowing how to spell words 99% of the population probably can’t pronounce.

The National Spelling Bee is one of the few events that celebrates something that can’t be bought or faked. If a kid is willing to memorize thousands of words and to learn etymology rules, she can do well in a spelling bee. Being rich, popular, or attractive doesn’t play a role.

In the tech world, we value intelligence. We think it’s cool when people are really good at math and science. But what about society as a whole? Why do people still get punished for being “geeky?” And who still gets more attention: the high school basketball team or the high school debate team? I don’t believe this is an equality question. People tend to like what they like.

I do think it’s a question of assigning value. Kids, and adults for that matter, are shown time and again examples that highlight attributes that fall to a small percentage of the population. We’ve allowed society to make certain characteristics, like physical beauty, the holy grail of success and happiness. And we can’t blame it all on the media. Were you one of the millions who purchased People or US last week?



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June 2007
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