Once a year, just ahead of the Memorial Day weekend, ESPN broadcasts a surprising competition, an event not typically considered as synonymous with a network known for its around-the-clock sports coverage: The Scripps National Spelling Bee. That’s right, ESPN devotes three separate viewing blocks–including a primetime hour (8 p.m. on Thursday, May 26th)– to showcase a group of adolescents competitively spelling words. How could this possibly compete with the excitement of lay-ups, power plays, or extra innings? If you have to ask that question, then clearly you have never watched the high-stakes tension of this elite spelling bee.
This is the first year that the Levittown School District has participated in the 2016 Long Island Regional Scripps Spelling Bee, held at Hofstra University on March 13. Although our district will not be represented at the national level, Nassau County has a speller in Rika Mizoguchi (AKA Speller No. 155), an eighth grade student at Harry B. Thompson Middle School in Syosset. Go Rika!
Don’t let the term fool you; although “spelling bee” sounds like a cute little turn of phrase, akin to “Oh my stars,” this is a serious competition with serious prizes. And there’s a lot of swag to be won: The champion goes home with a $40,000 cash prize, a $2,500 savings bond, a complete reference library, and an all-expense paid trip to be a guest on Live! With Kelly and Michael (rather, Live! With Kelly at press time…). Runners up don’t do too badly, either: 2nd, 3rd, and 4th place each receive five-figure cash prizes! Before you start to feel jealous about some 13-year-old earning the equivalent of your yearly salary in a single weekend, remember that these kids aren’t spelling sunshine or thoughtfulness. I don’t even think they’re spelling miscellaneous, the black hole of many middle school vocabulary tests. No, these kids are standing in front of millions, including audience members in the Washington D.C. convention center and the many watching from home, and wrestling with words like guetapens, stichomythia, appoggiatura, scherenschnitte, all winning words from the past ten years. (And if you think that I know the definitions of these words, you would be wrong, save for the last one, and this is only because the LPL offered a class a few years back that taught this German art of paper cutting).
I can only imagine the kind of preparations that go into mastering this level of language: a rainbow of flashcards, complete with not only words commonly posed in past years, but also the all-powerful Latin and Greek roots, the building blocks of so many of our words and therefore, the key to unlocking the mysterious spelling of so many complicated, tongue-tying words. If I spent hours a day for months at a time analyzing words, words, words, I would probably start dreaming about over-sized Z’s and L’s chasing me in the night!
I’m not the only one fascinated by the drama of spelling bees. Filmmakers, authors, and playwrights have helped to make spelling bees a part of popular culture. If you are particularly interested in learning more about THE spelling bee, the Scripps National Spelling Bee, director Jeffrey Blitz’s Academy Award nominated documentary Spellbound follows eight competitors in the 1999 Bee. There are also several fictional stories that revolve around spelling bees, cutting across mediums. For example, Bee Season is both a book (by Myla Goldberg) and a film (starring Richard Gere and Juliette Binoche), depicting a family whose various crises and hidden problems come to the surface when eleven-year-old daughter Eliza decides to compete in the National Spelling Bee. Akeelah and the Bee, a fantastic family film from 2006 starring Keke Palmer, Laurence Fishburne, and Angela Bassett, is an uplifting and entertaining story with a powerful message: Always believe in yourself! For a more grown-up spelling bee movie (much more grown-up), check out Bad Words, directed by and starring Jason Bateman. Switching to the theater, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, was a 2005 Broadway musical, winning two Tony Awards, and even offering audience members the chance to compete in the fictional spelling bee, alongside the characters. All of these are available for loan here at the Levittown Public Library, including the soundtrack of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.
If you find yourself inspired by these spelling whizzes–real and fictional–and want to gauge your own skills, Scripps has the 2015 Preliminaries Test available online. Take the test to see if you would have qualified for the Semifinals! If you want to improve your spelling–and shouldn’t we all, because words are some of the most beautiful, lyrical, and meaningful tools we have at our disposal–check out this article from Lifehack. Their big piece of advice should be obvious: Read more! I like to think that I am a decent speller, at least slightly better than average. The truth is that any spelling prowess I may possess is the direct result of reading, and reading everything and anything! Come to the library and stock up on reading material; improve your mind and your writing skills.
Take pride in your words, love language, find inspiration in the 285 adolescents who will spell their hearts out this month!