The Knack
July 12, 2019 1:09 AM   Subscribe

What happens to Spelling Bee champions when they get old? "It's like knowing someone who won a $50,000 scratch-off lottery ticket, or a girl who won Miss America.”

Spelling bees on Metafilter, previously, previously, and even morerer previously.
posted by Gin and Broadband (28 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Correct spelling is a strange achievement - a by-product of the weirdness of English? Could they even have a spelling bee in Italian (where I’m told spelling is pretty much regular and rational)?

That said, I once had words with a teacher who had taught my daughter’s class an entire lesson about something she called ‘similie’.
posted by Segundus at 1:41 AM on July 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

That subhed — “is peaking at 12 years old all it’s cracked up to be?” haunted me through my teens and most of my twenties. Took a half dozen different therapists to help me figure out it was a lie.

The way we treat kids who happen to be Good At School is so bizarre.
posted by haltingproblemsolved at 3:52 AM on July 12, 2019 [24 favorites]

This was an interesting read-- thank you.
posted by wicked_sassy at 5:24 AM on July 12, 2019 [2 favorites]

Lovely article with a good perspective on the whole thing. Favorite line: “I’m a person who always knows when something’s not spelled right,” he says with a hint of dismay." Two thoughts:

First, I hate that we are in such a rush to make children into prodigies. What is the hurry? All too often, as an educator, I saw parents immoderately proud of early flowering in their children, and too eager to push them. My long career enabled me to see how the early flowering resulted in results that did not justify the efforts expended. My own personal history, as a child with "potential," and "genius," means I counsel my student teachers to avoid the words altogether when describing their own charges.

Second, I'm a "natural" at spelling myself, and the dismay is real. I have a monthly get-together in a public space where I have to sit with my back to one of the signs because the word "surrounding" is spelled "surronding," and it keeps leaping out at me. I could pretend that it's because I was an English teacher, but I have had the ability since I was very young, possibly because I read so much and possibly because of a strong visual ability.

Spellcheck has indeed muddied the waters, as the article points out; I feel as if I'm constantly wrestling with autocorrect on my phone; I need it because I'm a fast thumb-typer, but it requires vigilance not to let its horrid assumptions swamp me. In fact, I have an autotext shortcut in my phone of "gdac" which produces "goddamned autocorrect goddamnit" whenever the device produces a more-than-usually hilarious typo.

There was not, as far as I can see, a golden age of correct spelling. Anyone who spends time going through the writing of ordinary people from earlier times knows that. It's certainly less inventive than it was in Shakespeare's time, granted, but people have always messed up and often even been proud of the results (vide Mark Twain).

I am going through my mother's and grandmother's papers these days, trying to determine what I should toss out and what I should scan and share with my siblings; these highly educated women did spell extremely well, granted, but not perfectly. All too often it's because of the same process that happens when we are texting, where we automatically write a word that begins with the same letters as the one we are attempting, or we leave off letters because our attention was distracted by the effort of forming the word. And the rest of the time it's because they have over-learned a misspelling by repeated practice, and can't catch it on the fly because it doesn't look wrong.

There may be misspellings in this text as well. I wouldn't be surprised. I already caught one after posting and edited it.
posted by Peach at 5:59 AM on July 12, 2019 [15 favorites]

I don't know about temporarily embarrassed millionaires, but I do know about temporarily embarrassed spelling-bee champs.

Assassin has two asses.

I learned.

posted by emelenjr at 6:12 AM on July 12, 2019 [4 favorites]

Could they even have a spelling bee in Italian (where I’m told spelling is pretty much regular and rational)?

Or Japanese, where the alphabet is syllabic, and it would pretty much literally be like asking someone how to spell FBI.

Yet it seems like something the Japanese would be so into. My guess is that they have spelling bees in English.
posted by Naberius at 6:32 AM on July 12, 2019 [4 favorites]

I won my school spelling bee in the 6th grade with "lieutenant".

I went to the county spelling bee and failed on my first word: "doughty"

To this day, I think archaic words are bullshit. Hmf.
posted by Fleebnork at 6:36 AM on July 12, 2019

I participated in this in the late 90s, as a child who liked words and was extensively read, but saw no point in rote learning (or indeed, in putting effort into boring and pointless tasks.) When I was selected to go, a previous participant gave me literal feet of homework -- study packets, photocopied lists, all sorts of stuff. She'd spent hours on it every day. I refused to do any of it and spent the summer as I always did: playing video games, lying around, and reading what I wanted.

At the national bee, when I went out of the contest, a teenage volunteer draped a comforting arm across my shoulders (I was like wtf I don't know you and do I look like I need a hug?) and led me to the "comfort room", a dimly lit hotel lounge, with sofas, wherein eliminated contestants could eat muffins and cry until their parents came to collect them. This made my parents somewhat apprehensive -- not because of its creepiness but because they were unfamiliar with the idea of academic competitions that reduced children to tears. (Readers, I was not reduced to tears. I was relieved to get off an incredibly hot and boring stage, and perhaps wrangle my disappointment into a trip to the zoo.)

As I learned about the high-placing participants, it was shocking. They had spent hours and hours of their childhood in relentless drilling. Did they like doing any of it? That seemed to be beside the point. And seeing hundreds of bright children who were expected to spend vast amounts of their time in pointless rote learning just struck me as a tragic waste of human childhood. Especially for a contest that, by definition, only a few of them could win. What if they had done literally anything else with all of that time? Like trying to figure out something for the Westinghouse prize, or reading interesting books, or building a fort in their backyard, or just having fun?

Don't get me wrong, I like words and people need to know how to use them, but spelling bees are the ultimate in pointless and stupid human tricks. They are maintained by adults as an unexamined symbol of wholesomeness.
posted by Hypatia at 7:19 AM on July 12, 2019 [23 favorites]

I was one of these kids, on a small scale. I won state a couple of times,* and I went to regionals, but that was as far as I could have gone anyway, since I went to a white flight academy private school with a bee system that didn't feed into the Scripps Howard competition.

I cried buckets when I lost at regionals (fourth place? seventh? I don't remember). I was an intense, anxious, and bookish kid with a natural talent for spelling and a deep need for external validation, and if you swapped out "kid," that would still pretty much describe me. But once I was old enough to want to get that validation in cooler ways, I dropped the bee business.

I did not drop the spelling. I am an editor now, and even in my previous work I was informally counted on to spell words or give a second look to documents. I didn't mind. It's a talent, and it got me a lovely trip to North Carolina once, plus a puppy who lived to be 18. Still, I do regret the years that I mistook spelling skills for intelligence. And I don't think it did me any favors in modeling the kinds of achievement that are desirable or the coping skills that should come with losing.

* Please don't ask me to verify this; it's my best recollection, but I have buried the facts with the other embarrassing tween memories. There are plaques somewhere that will indicate when I won, as opposed to just placing.
posted by Countess Elena at 7:41 AM on July 12, 2019 [6 favorites]

There are transcription contests for French rather than spelling bees.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 8:26 AM on July 12, 2019 [4 favorites]

but spelling bees are the ultimate in pointless and stupid human tricks.

I mean, have you *seen* speed-stacking?
posted by jacquilynne at 8:41 AM on July 12, 2019 [3 favorites]

I got curious and looked up the list of winners and the winning words here and all I can say is, the Spelling Bee used to be easy. Even into the 1980s people were winning with common words like "milieu" or "sarcophagus". I was of spelling bee age in the early 80s and made it to state level without ever looking at a word list, just on the strength of reading a lot. Somewhere in the 1990s the game changed and most of the winning words of the past 20 years are truly obscure. I wonder what more recent winners would say in an article like this, when being a champion-level speller requires so much more effort than it used to.
posted by Daily Alice at 9:02 AM on July 12, 2019 [4 favorites]

I recall winning with the word "chromotrichial" (pertaining to hair color). Although I am a huge fan of obscure words and pedantic knowledge, as well as a frequent dyer of my hair, I have never found a single occurrence of this in the wild.
posted by Countess Elena at 10:04 AM on July 12, 2019 [3 favorites]

When I was in eighth grade, my school decided out of the blue (and only that one year) to send a team to the state Forensics Championships. (Not the kind that involves autopsies and murders and stuff. The other kind.) I didn't get to do spelling because they wanted me to do humorous monologue instead.

All I recall about that is that my piece had me pretending to demonstrate various complex knots, badly, with an imaginary piece of rope, and ultimately strangling myself to death. The judges actually asked me after I was done whether I meant to screw up all the knots, which I guess meant I must have done pretty well. I ended up winning statewide for my grade level anyway. I was the funniest eighth-grader in the state of Virginia, and I could prove it.

But because I was doing that, they put someone else on spelling, and he got stage fright and choked on "Balloon" his first time up. (It has two L's.) That's always kind of stuck in my craw.
posted by Naberius at 10:24 AM on July 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

I went to the national bee in the late 90s (Hypatia, we might have been at the same one) and now I work with kids who are unusually talented in another area. My impression is that while pushy parents do exist, they are less common than slightly befuddled parents trying to figure out how best to support their kid's weird, unstoppable obsession. I can hear my mother's rueful laugh (though underneath we were both seething) when people asked her if I shouldn't have a more normal childhood -- as if it were her choice, as if I'd suddenly take up soccer and video games if not for this one particular outlet.

Some people are naturally odd and are going to have odd childhoods no matter what; I'm grateful for institutions that recognize, reward and channel their interests. Adults do have a responsibility to watch out for perverse incentives and confusing messages, though.

For me, practicing for the spelling bee built up my interest in language and eventually linguistics. English spelling is not random. As the article mentions, you can figure out a lot of words from their roots, especially if you know the language of origin. Good spellers don't just have more words committed to memory -- they also make better guesses when confronted with unknown words or names because they have a sense of the structure and history of English. All this is still a niche interest, sure, but it's more than a parlor trick. It lasts a lot longer than whatever attention (a lot of it unfriendly) the trophies attract.
posted by aws17576 at 10:25 AM on July 12, 2019 [5 favorites]

Last week, Bill Nye's podcast interviewed a couple spelling bee champs that had me cracking up.

Or Japanese, where the alphabet is syllabic, and it would pretty much literally be like asking someone how to spell FBI

Would that be "eff bee eye" or " eff bee aye"?
posted by 2N2222 at 11:45 AM on July 12, 2019

I went out on "amenable".
As they say, there's no "I" in amenable.
posted by chavenet at 12:01 PM on July 12, 2019

Segundus: Correct spelling is a strange achievement - a by-product of the weirdness of English? Could they even have a spelling bee in Italian (where I’m told spelling is pretty much regular and rational)?

Well, the French have something sort of equivalent: dictée (literally, "dictation"). It's a standard exercise in school. Just as it says on the tin, the teacher reads out a passage and the students try to write down what they said. Everyone writes at the same time and they're scored after the fact. As in an English spelling bee, some of the difficulty comes in from spelling difficult, rare words, often including proper nouns. However, one added bit of difficulty is that French has a more elaborate verb conjugation system than English and a lot of different verb conjugations are homophonic so you really need to know your verb conjugations to figure out what you should be spelling.

The top tier of dictée competition, however, is not just for middle schoolers. There's a competition tier that's for grown-ass adults. Here's a video of a 1989 competition hosted by Bernard Pivot set in the French National Library.
posted by mhum at 12:35 PM on July 12, 2019 [4 favorites]

Correct spelling is a strange achievement - a by-product of the weirdness of English?

I read somewhere once that spelling bees became popular in the 19th century, when there were lots of new immigrants, and that showing off schoolchildrens' mastery of the mysteries of English spelling was kind of a symbol of assimilation and success for this population. I'm not sure how credible that theory is, however.
posted by thelonius at 12:59 PM on July 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

I lost at the county level on "llama," because I was sick and couldn't hear right and thought they were asking me to spell "lava" instead.
posted by enf at 5:23 PM on July 12, 2019

We didn’t have these in England when I was growing up, but I was a voracious reader and got in trouble aged 10 for correcting a teacher’s spelling on the whiteboard.

mhum, we did dictée in French at university (in England), and the homophonic verbs are ok if you know your conjugations, it’s the homophonic nouns that are killer.
posted by ellieBOA at 11:08 PM on July 12, 2019

I've always had a knack for spelling, but not out loud. There just isn't a high-speed connection in my brain between the way a word is written (which is blindingly obvious) and a spoken sequence of letters. So I found it very annoying as a child that spelling out loud was such a widely accepted measure of spelling ability.

English is my second language; I'm not sure if the difference in pronunciation of letters in different languages contributed to this.

I do think that it helped me be better at both spelling and grammar -- knowledge of a more regular and structured language helped me understand (if not consciously) the inconsistent and partially atrophied rules visible just under the surface of the mess that is the English language.
posted by confluency at 11:46 AM on July 13, 2019

I am bitter about spelling contests, since I was knocked out in 8th grade with a word that I'm betting a lot of people would get wrong. It's the full word for the animal whose name is shortened as "rhino". Fill in the rest of the word without looking it up. You might be surprised.

Anyway, I messed it up. But I knew every other single word in the spelling bee perfectly. If only I hadn't been given the word I was given! Argh!

Also I got this really... stunningly ugly trophy with an anthropomorphized bee reading from a book. But hey I at least got to go to the state competition with a couple other students, and my mom was our chaperone. It was a nice day downtown. We were all knocked out in the written portion, but we weren't that surprised or disappointed.
posted by cats are weird at 1:20 PM on July 14, 2019

I won the 6th grade spelling bee on "tax." I was, and still am, a lousy speller. I can't explain why I won that day.
posted by COD at 6:16 PM on July 14, 2019

I lost my school's Christmas spelling bee on Rudolph, because my father's middle name was Rudolf.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:11 PM on July 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

To this day I'm not sure if we were those parents indulging or child's obsession, or Those Parents pushing our ambitions on our child because we wanted to show off their uncanny talent. Probably more the latter, and for that I'm sorry. It's hard to know how to do right by super-intelligent precocious kids who are bored at school but still just kids. The spelling bees were one outlet. We certainly didn't do enough to make sure they knew we loved them regardless of what things they were good at.
Anyway. I enjoyed the fine article and the different ways the interviewees looked back on their experiences.
posted by evilmomlady at 7:01 AM on July 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

Eh, it was the 90s, we were all doing the best we knew. And I think I turned out okay in the end, all things considered. <3
posted by haltingproblemsolved at 7:04 PM on July 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

As they say, there's no "I" in amenable

And amen to that.
posted by y2karl at 5:13 PM on July 24, 2019

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