Thoughts on the National Spelling Bee

We watched the Scripps National Spelling Bee last night. Sena watched it the night before and we both watched the final for the first time ever. There’s something about watching kids under pressure to spell words that I’ve never even heard of that made it painful for me to watch at times. I think I recognized only a couple of the words.

For the first time in 94 years of the spelling bee, there was a spelling runoff to determine the winner. Harini Logan won and was apparently calm and poised as she rattled off 21 of 26 words correctly. The second-place winter was Akram Vikru, an extremely strong performer.

Nobody fainted. The reason I mention that is that one guy named Akshay Buttiga did faint on stage in the 2004 contest and there’s a YouTube video of it that went viral. He was down but not for the count. In seconds he bounced back up, spelled his word correctly and went on to finish the competition, getting runner-up honors.

Last year’s winner was Zaila Avant-garde (how’s that for a great last name?). She’s the first African American to win the spelling bee. She was on hand last night to make comments on the current competition. She has spectacular goals, among them working for NASA to find another planet for us to live on sometime—which we’ll likely need. Go Zaila!

One thing I saw a lot of spellers do was write in their palms while they were up to the microphone getting ready to spell their words. I guess it helps them visualize the word, or maybe it’s a tactile thing.

Another interesting feature was the bell lady, who never gets mentioned. This was the woman who had the terrible job of ringing the bell when the contestants misspelled their words. Interviews with the kids revealed that the bell was what they dreaded the most. On the other hand, what I noticed about the bell lady were her words of encouragement after she rang the bell. She wasn’t an executioner. She said something different to each kid that basically expressed that he or she was still loved, admired, and sure to be a success in life.

They were under tremendous pressure. How did they do it? Part of their preparation were spelling coaches and something called SpellPundit, a $600 subscription resource that can give those who can afford it a big advantage in competition.

Maybe some of them have prodigious memories and memorize the dictionary, as Nigel Richards did when he won the French-language Scrabble World Championships in 2015. He didn’t speak a word of French. Somehow, I doubt that’s the main strategy.

But the contestants themselves have a lot of drive, enthusiasm, and a superhuman work ethic that often amounted to working on spelling for several hours a day. Grit is a huge trait, as Buttiga demonstrated.

Where are past winners now? It turns out they’re all in jail or on skid row. Just kidding. They are leaders across many professions and society is lucky to have them.

Congratulations to the winners!

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