Until Saturday, I’d forgotten how terribly fun – and just plain terrible – spelling bees can be.
Let me start by saying spelling bees are one of the oldest forms of torture known to man, second only to medieval menaces like the thumbscrew and Grandpa Fred at a nude beach. I coordinated the Scripts Regional Spelling Bee this year, and more than once, I wanted to throw myself on a pyre of all 2,816 pages of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary.
At first, as an adult far removed from my brace-faced middle school days, I scoffed at the fear and trembling with which I once approached the stage. You’d be scared, too, if as a third grader you knew full well you’d be that kid – you know, the one who has to spell “poliomyelitis” right after the kid in front of me spelled “duck.” That apprehension was always compounded by the irritating knowledge that the girl who won for what seems like 12 years in a row had a younger brother.
Like I said, I scoffed. That is until I had to stand up and speak to several dozen spelling bee parents. You know the type. They’re the ones who sit at the dinner table firing Arabic words at their children at odd intervals to keep them on their toes. Luckily, I didn’t have to deal with them much as a kid, mostly because when I was in the spelling bee, they were the ones ignoring all the other children in order to better critique their child’s spelling form. “Why didn’t you ask for the language of origin, Bobby? Keep your eye on the ball!”
Anyway, I walked trembling onto the stage, wondering whose bright idea it was to put me in charge and which kid was going to throw up first – after me, of course. I introduced our judges and instructed everyone to turn off their cell phones – which they did – and their crying babies – which they did not – and the bee began.
And almost immediately, every person in the audience was shown up by a 10-year-old. These kids had been studying for weeks to get there – except for that one guy who’s just there because no else showed up for his school bee, and he gets out in the first round on something like “box” – and all of the adults in the audience with their pen and paper in hand were scrambling to keep up.
At that moment, we finally realized why we hated spelling bees so much. None of us can spell those words. I can’t even pronounce them. I’m pretty sure they’re not even real words; Scripps just uses some highly advanced computer program to string letters together in plausible-sounding patterns. My conclusion is that these children are not actually human, but elegant machines designed by Merriam-Webster to take over the world one definition at a time. Fortunately, I’m safe from things like definitions and parts of speech because I won’t ever actually need to use “elucubrate” in a sentence.
Except that one.