The National Spelling Bee is once again upon us, and once again I find myself asking what all the fuss is about. That probably sounds cynical, or perhaps even heartless.
It's not because I don't admire the talent of the participants; I do. But having always been a great speller, I guess I just don't understand the appeal of watching a bunch of contestants spell words that we all know that few people have ever heard of in their lives, much less heard used in everyday speech.
I also admire the contestants for keeping their cool under pressure, because I've been there. No, certainly not at the national level, or even at the state level. But in 1974, I won the Sacramento County Spelling Bee, which at the time was as far as one could go on the "spelling circuit" in this neck of the woods. The contest was open only to 8th graders, and it was a fluke that I even ended up in it. To enter at the school you attended (Will Rogers Intermediate School, for me) you had to be recommended by your reading teacher. Well, in 8th grade I didn't have reading, because I took Yearbook/Newspaper instead. For some reason they announced the names of the participants over the campus speaker system, and at the moment they did, I just happened to be in my typing class with Miss Petersen - who had been my reading teacher in 7th grade. She came over and asked why I wasn't one of the named contestants (since I hadn't missed a spelling word the entire year I was in her class), and when I explained, she stomped out of the room, muttering, "well, we'll see about that." I remember feeling embarrassed beyond belief, and even saying "no, really - it's OK," but it fell on deaf ears.
The first step was a written test, with 50 words. They didn't tell us our score, but I ended up as one of the 12 school finalists. A couple of days after that, they took us out of our last class of the day, marched us over to the library, and narrowed the group down to 4. Of those 4, one was a girl named Michelle Williams, who I'd known since we were in the same class together in 3rd grade. She was also a great speller, and in fact had beaten me in the only school wide spelling bee they held when we were in elementary school (we were both in 4th grade; and I came in second). Another was a girl named Jean, and she was definitely the smartest student in the entire school. I think she knew it.
It was during the school contest that something happened to me that happened to me in every Spelling Bee I'd ever been a part of. A word would come up that I would know, but for some reason my mind would go entirely blank. In 4th grade, the word had been "eight" - for the life of me, I could not remember how to spell that word, for reasons I'm still not sure I understand. This time around the word was "abscess," and again I had no clue. And again for reasons I still don't entirely understand, I spelled it correctly despite thinking at that moment that I'd blown it.
We then moved on to the district finals, held at the District Office. I think there were about 20 of us, and again they were narrowing the group down to 4 to advance to the County finals. Having my mom in the audience didn't do much for my nerves, but I made it through, along with Jean and two girls from different schools.
The County contest was held in a big auditorium in the Municipal Utility District building, and this time I remember being really nervous - not only was my mom there, but so was my school's Vice Principal and three of our teachers. Because both of her parents worked, we had given Jean a ride over, and I remember thinking that there was no way I was going to beat her, much less 14 other contestants. But then a funny thing happened - one by one, everyone kept going down, and every time, I knew the word. Jean was one of the first to go out, and to her credit rooted for me the rest of the way (or so my mom said; I had no reason to doubt her). Next thing you knew, I'd won the whole thing, and even ended up with my picture in the Sacramento Union.
It was fun, no doubt about it - my 15 minutes of teenage fame, if you will. But even then, the ability to spell well didn't seem like such a big deal to me. Over the years, when people have asked me about it, I always say the same thing - you can either spell, or you can't. I never studied; I never tried to memorize words; I never tried to memorize rules. I pictured the word in my head, and if it felt right, that was probably it.
It's all gotten pretty big now - ESPN, and now even ABC. And I'm sorry to say, it still doesn't seem like such a big deal to me.