Wednesday, November 29, 2000

Death by spelling

I’ve watched the Olympics and thought about how much stress that sort of intense training and competition places on young people. I’ve read about parents behaving badly at Little League games and wondered how their children survived the pressure of being expected to perform perfectly. I’ve generally considered that athletics as it stands today in America may be a mess best avoided. But I’m rethinking that now, because over Thanksgiving, I witnessed a competition more grueling, more stomach-churning, more devoid of childish joy than any I have ever seen.

And it was a spelling bee.

The National Spelling Bee, to be specific, shown on a cable channel that must have been pretty desperate for programming. I’m pretty sure it was actually last spring’s National Spelling Bee, or else all children engaged in spelling activities are in grades a year below their proper age level. I’d be overjoyed, as the mom of a daughter who’s two years behind her age group, if all those 12-year-old sixth graders were really starting out the year instead of finishing it, but why would you have a national bee in the fall? Surely you give them at least half the school year to memorize all those ridiculous words.

And these children certainly had them memorized. Words that I would have sworn the moderator made up on the spot, just for fun, they spelled. Words that no one has ever used in actual written matter, they spelled. Words that made grown-ups sitting at home, grown-ups with college degrees and careers as writers, say “Huh?”, they spelled. But they didn’t look too happy about it.

Indeed, most of them looked like their deepest desire was to have a sniper in the balcony shoot them and put them out of their misery. One girl bent over double every time she heard a word, then straightened up briefly and with a terrible grimace asked for a definition, a sentence, a clarification of some sort, then doubled over again. I wondered if losing your lunch onstage was grounds for disqualification. I wondered if she’d been checked for ulcers. But mostly I wondered how her parents could sit in the audience and watch that and not immediately tell her “Sweetie, I don’t care how much you want it, your spelling bee days are over.” Perhaps the problem is that she’s not the one who wants it so badly.

I’d certainly be proud if my kids could spell well. I might encourage them to participate in competitions if it was something they were good at, and certainly a little nervousness is to be expected. But most of these children looked to be in genuine, soul-scarring agony. I could smell the tension and fear in the air through the TV screen. And for what? Presumably there’s money or maybe a scholarship for the winner, but it’s not like there’s a future in spelling. Pressure your kid to excel in sports, and maybe there’ll be pro prospects or Olympic glory or a spot on a Wheaties box. What kind of box would spellers go on--AlphaBits? Perhaps there’s a lucrative Campbell’s alphabet soup contract that I’m not aware of.

No matter what, though, there’s no way any of that is worth putting a child through such torture. Give those kids a dictionary and an electronic spell-checker and send them outside to play already.

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