October 21, 2002
7:07 AM   Subscribe

Yesterday I saw a wonderful movie - Spellbound - a documentary about the annual Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee - which won the Jury Award for Best Documentary Feature at SXSW. It explores the dynamics surrounding kids and parents desire for success in the competition, reconciliation with failure and differing models of education, competition and success. When I was a kid I was on the TV show It's Academic - along with lots of other famous faces. While you may want to make fun of the show - I still remember it fondly. My parents were happy to see me compete but generally unconcerned about the outcome in any way. Now we've got Math Olympics, the Academic Decathlon and a host of other competitive ventures. Any other MeFites remember school days competitions and the drive to succeed?
posted by dhacker (29 comments total)
I look forward to seeing the movie. When I was a kid I had a penchant for good spelling and every year competed in my school's spelling bee. By fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth grade expectations had risen to the point where everybody from the principal to my parents and classmates expected me to represent the school in the next level of competition. I dreaded it every year - the nerves, my parents insistence on drilling me with words I couldn't even pronounce, the fear of blowing it on an easy word, which I did on two separate occasions.. Now when I watch the highlights of the finals on espn (espn!) I feel so sorry for some of the kids who just really look miserable on stage, like misspelling australopithecus is going to scar them for life.
posted by vito90 at 7:17 AM on October 21, 2002

For people from the UK (at least, I assume this is an US thing)

bee1 Pronunciation Key (b)

- Any of several winged, hairy-bodied, usually stinging insects of the superfamily Apoidea in the order Hymenoptera, including both solitary and social species and characterized by sucking and chewing mouthparts for gathering nectar and pollen.
- A bumblebee.
- A honeybee.
- A social gathering where people combine work, competition, and amusement: a quilting bee.

(The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition)

Although what the hell competition quilting is, i don't know.
posted by jonvaughan at 7:20 AM on October 21, 2002

Myla Goldberg's Bee Season is a good read. ESPN columnists Chris McKendry and Bill Simmons provide humorous commentary on the Bee. The New Yorker had a good article this summer about a family that is to the spelling bee what the Williams family is to women's tennis. (sorry can't find a link for it)
posted by Frank Grimes at 7:33 AM on October 21, 2002

Lot's of info on the 1997 winner Rebecca Sealfon including a a video of her winning word.
posted by dhacker at 7:37 AM on October 21, 2002

I remember kicking our team captain under the table on It's Academic. We were a pretty small school, and were thankful to come in a respectable second and not get whupped up on by Wheaton or somebody. I still have the embarrassing picture. Apparently Mac McGarry (sp) is still hosting...amazing...I was on 15 years ago. I found him creepy.
posted by rainbaby at 7:43 AM on October 21, 2002

I was on my high school's It's Academic team for two years, and my most vivid memory is of Mac McGarry's toupee.

[After previweing] I was on 24 years ago, and he was already an institution by then, rainbaby. He's like Dick Clark only less popular and not remotely ageless.
posted by anapestic at 7:47 AM on October 21, 2002

I'm interested in seeing the movie. I took part in the 1996 bee, placing fourth, so I have a little bit of an insider's perspective (based on when I was 14, admittedly) of how things are run.

I haven't seen it yet, so I can't comment on the depiction of NSB events in the film, but there was a lot going on - a good deal more drama and heartbreak and pressure than one would think. Rebecca Sealfon, notorious for her 1997 win, sat next to me (we were both from New York) for the majority of the second day of the bee in 1996, and was extremely chatty and hyperactive and, to some extent, distracting. One of the parents of another competitor reportedly complained to the officials and they made her sit offstage in a stairwell, rather than onstage with the rest of the contestants, for the final few rounds before her exit. She would run onstage, spell her word, and run offstage, limbs akimbo. It was something to see. (And something, if I remember correctly, that wasn't exactly broadcast well on the ESPN coverage of the event.)

There were also rumors of unsavory goings-on - the year before my participation one of the top finishers was beaten by her father for failing to win the event, and it was well-known that there was small-scale wagering going on between ultracompetitive parents.
posted by dayan at 8:00 AM on October 21, 2002

Although I did well in the spelling bees (making respectable showings at the county level), it was the kiss of the death in terms of coolness and my fear of peer pressure made me drop out since I didn't want to do anything that might draw attention to me as a nerd. Not that it succeeded mind you, I was the biggest dork to ever stumble across the Earth and it's only gotten worse since then.

But at least I have no need of MS Word's automatic spell checking.
posted by rks404 at 8:01 AM on October 21, 2002

I second the recommendation for myla goldberg's book "Bee Season"
posted by goneill at 8:04 AM on October 21, 2002

Indeed I do remember. I entered the Scripps Howard Spelling Bee once, and made it to 5th place in the Southeast Texas region (including Houston, and I'm guessing 4 or 5 million people).

My mom drilled me to no end. It wasn't a forced thing, though. I mean, sure, she cajoled me from time to time -- but it was something I wanted to do, as well. I guess she acted more as a coach, pushing me to practice and learn when I might have been wasting my time reading (heheh).

I believe the next step after my region was the national bee in Washington, DC, but I'm not certain. We went all the way through the list of Bee words (those words all contestants studied the hardest), and on to words that did not come from the list. Though I spelled "seiche" correctly, I missed "somnolent." It was a shame, because I knew the spelling of every other word given after I dropped out.

Fun, fun fun... (OK, not really.)
posted by syzygy at 8:33 AM on October 21, 2002

I was one word away from winning the state spelling bee, which would send me to nationals, and I messed it up, even after being given a second chance (!!!) to correctly spell the word because the judges had not heard me the first time.

Guess it just wasn't meant to be. Would love to see the film, though. One of the gals from my school did win state, but had the dubious honor of being the first person out of the competition once she got to nationals.
posted by illusionaire at 9:39 AM on October 21, 2002

When I was a child, I won my elementary school's spelling bee two years in a row. This infuriated my best friend, because he knew that I never studied, while would study his guts out for weeks, drilling over and over on the list that was provided to us. I don't think I ever once even bothered to look at the word list, I just had a knack for spelling. Thankfully, it appears to be genetic, because all of my children are excellent spellers even though their mother can't spell worth a damn.

I will also never forget the two words I misspelled in the regional competition. Deceit, which I incorrectly spelled with a "p" in it, as "receipt", and incarcerate which I spelled as "encarcerate". My mother can still get angry about that one as she insists the moderator mispronounced it.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 9:58 AM on October 21, 2002

I do not remember for sure but I think the word that cost me my regional spelling bee was "parfait." A year later, the word that ended my spelling bee career: "sayonara."

Stupid foreign language spelling bee words!
posted by furiousthought at 10:52 AM on October 21, 2002

posted by goneill at 11:19 AM on October 21, 2002

"hooroosh." county spelling bee. third place. sob.
posted by grrarrgh00 at 11:51 AM on October 21, 2002

I did spelling bee up to second grade (came in second on a misspelling of 'receive'), but my school nixed the competition. In High School, we did Challenge Bowl, which was much more interesting.
posted by plinth at 12:32 PM on October 21, 2002

The admiration and respect normally reserved for athletic heroes are extended to the students who represent their schools on the program.

Humph. Not at MY school, they weren't. Even when we won the Scolastic Bowl state championship, the only quizzers who got any love were the two who were also star soccer players. I remember vividly the time we were playing two big DC-area schools on "It's Academic." One had a pep band. The other brought their school mascot in full costume. They both had cheerleaders. Our team had the two coaches and me. But hey, they very nearly won, and the team captain thanked me personally for coming to support them.

Now that I think about it, I think that was the time I skipped my semi-boyfriend's Officer's Ball to watch them compete. God, I was a happy little dork.
posted by hippugeek at 12:46 PM on October 21, 2002

In Colorado, we had Science Olympiad. I won a gold medal in 1988 in the Anatomy event, the first year they offered it. And apparently, they no longer do offer it.
posted by CoFenchurch at 1:01 PM on October 21, 2002


Our junior high spelling bee included 7th and 8th graders.

In 7th grade, I finished 2nd to an 8th grader (very smart, talented and good-hearted guy, no dishonor in this loss), so I was looking forward to a clear road next year after he graduated.

Then I found out the f$%*&^ing event was biannual.
posted by kurumi at 1:53 PM on October 21, 2002

I was a Mathcounts geek in junior high. I also participated in a similar math competition held by my school district in high school. I can still remember the ratios of lengths of sides of a 30-60-90 triangle.

Later in life, I encountered a number of math teachers -- high school and college level -- who were very down on the idea of competitive mathematics competitions. They argued that it rewarded the memorization of "tricks" (like the 30-60-90 triangle thing) and accurate arithmetic over the important part of math -- theory and proofs. There may be something to that. I learned the Pythagorean Theorem in fifth grade, but never learned how to prove it until junior year of college. On the other hand, those who study mathematics in order to promote their study of science or engineering usually benefit from the practical sides of math more than the theoretical. (Usually).
posted by profwhat at 1:57 PM on October 21, 2002

I did the whole Math Olympiad thing, and got as far as the training camp for the team that was going to Russia to take on Soviet high-school kids at the height of Reagan-era Cold War jingoism. I didn't make the cut, but it was eye-opening for me to suddenly not be the nerdiest kid in the room. The training camp was held at West Point, creating the odd scene of a bunch of unwashed frisbee-playing math nerds sharing a campus with the military cadets.

profwhat has it right: the whole thing made me feel a bit like a trained seal. Adults were hugely impressed, my peers didn't give a damn, and I wound up abandoning mathematics later on when I found that my ability to do well on contrived contest problems didn't translate into the ability to do mathematical research for real.
posted by fuzz at 2:20 PM on October 21, 2002

I went to a school not known for its academic standing. I remember one morning announcement from the principal..."Congratulations go to the Math Team for winning the first state championship in school history and the first state championship for any school team in 17 years."

He went on to name me for placing first in state. I remember the laughter, stares and incredulous looks. And then the questions...

"Math? Team? Uh, how?"
"We take tests."
"Tests? After school? UH, why?"
"My 50-yard dash time sucks."

Actually I wished I had said that last line. I just looked embarrassed as the bell rang. I won't even go into the "Letter Presentation Ceremony."
posted by ?! at 4:12 PM on October 21, 2002

dhacker and dayan: great links and info about Rebecca Sealfon. That video is priceless. The articles seemed to imply that she sat offstage because she was "nervous" and had "butterflies." Seems to me she was put there because she was so damn annoying! Now that she's older, I wonder if she regrets the win?
posted by Fofer at 5:45 PM on October 21, 2002

I was in the Academic Decathlon in High School. My best memory is sitting on the gym floor, crowd of people behind me, wondering if I stood a chance to answer the question on DNA.

I missed it. I did well on the other stuff, though.
posted by jmevius at 6:41 AM on October 22, 2002

Oh man, I swear, I'm obsessed with Rebecca Sealfon's video video now. Her unrestrained glee is charming and dreadful at the same time. But here's the part that's nagging me: Doesn't it sound like she's spelling it WRONG?


How weird would that be, amidst all of her excitement, they tell her, "um, no, I'm sorry, that's wrong." After 10 repeat viewings I still can't figure out what the hell the last "U-M" might be. She's not repeating the word...

Anyone? Am I the only one who wants to repeal the 1997 Spelling Bee results?
posted by Fofer at 8:23 AM on October 22, 2002

Everybody remembers the word that killed 'em.

"Unsuccessful." I knew how to spell it, but I was really nervous and paralyzed by stage fright. Second place. Argh. Thanks for the horrible flashbacks, dhacker. (Although seeing a contestant freeze up at "aitch" a couple years back was darkly amusing.)
posted by tyro urge at 12:03 PM on October 22, 2002

Fofer: Actually, I've always interpreted it as her repeating the word. If you slow it down (loser that I am, I actually did, just for the purposes of responding to this), it sounds clearer.
posted by dayan at 2:40 PM on October 22, 2002

I was the Seattle city spelling champ in 1979. The word I won on was "tawdry." (Yes, that's an insanely easy one. Imagine my relief and shock when they read it to me. The words leading up to it were much harder.) I think I was 7th in the city the year before.

I loved competing in the bees. I did it for several years and just had a blast every time. (Except for the waiting between words. When there are 160 kids in the bee, as in our regional, the waaaaaaaiting is the hardest part, to quote Tom Petty.) I got some neat prizes (yay! DICTIONARIES!) and experiences out of it. In the regional bee, one step below Nationals, I always finished respectably... but of course, that wasn't good enough. Still, I am glad I participated, and really annoyed that my school chose not to participate in my 6th grade year, thus losing me a year of eligibility. (I was in it in 5th, 7th, and 8th grades.)

I have often wished that there was an adult spelling bee. I would love to try it. Why on earth does it stop at age 14?

(The word I lost on at Regionals one year was "paradigm." The reader, after my mistake, said "You'll always remember how to spell it if you remember 'paradigmatic.'" Like I would ever forget the word again...)
posted by litlnemo at 4:21 PM on October 22, 2002

I guess I have to come out of the closet by now ... as the 1986 National Spelling Bee Champion. My winning word was odontalgia, which is mainly just a technical term for a toothache. I also got to meet Ronald Reagan, but originally, the meeting at the White House wasn't supposed to happen. At the time I did my regional spelling bee, it was televised, but I won the bee early enough that the TV station had a lot of dead air to fill. I was mostly interested in getting my loot, but they filled dead air by asking questions of the regional finalists. They asked me what I wanted to do when I went to Washington DC. I just blurted out that it would be nice to meet the President, but it was just something I said so as not to look stupid on TV. My mother then independently wrote Ronald Reagan about having the President meet the spelling bee contestants, but got turned down flat. However, when I won the Spelling Bee, suddenly the White House reversed itself and we had a reception in the Rose Garden. (By the way, the link to the Reagan speech mentions Terra Syslo and Monica Van Doren for their achievements. Terra Syslo was completely blind and Monica Van Doren was deaf and had to compete in the bee by reading lips.)

Several years later, I also had an interesting time working as a staffer at the National Spelling Bee. One interesting detail is that the collegiate-age staff got drunk a lot when I was there. Looking back, I think I even had a program from the 1985 or 1986 Spelling Bee where it's easy to see that the younger staffers are completely wasted. One interesting phenomenon I learned about is that the compilers of the word lists have to avoid putting in words that aren't technically swear words, but sound like swear words when read aloud. The best is phacometer, which sounds like "fuck-ometer" when it's read aloud. They even screwed up once when they accidentally included the word dickcissel. One of my fellow staffers kept telling me about this lady who came to the press table at the Spelling Bee to complain about the inclusion of "dickcissel." She kept saying "dickcissel! dickcissel!" in a way that suggested she was offended, but that she was also getting her jollies by saying the word over and over again.
posted by jonp72 at 8:20 PM on October 23, 2002 [2 favorites]

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