I didn’t always take spelling for granted. There was a time when I craved consonant clusters and reveled in vowel blends. But somehow, over the years, I’ve become completely reliant on spell check to correct my spelling errors and leave me with blemish free writing, for which I’d shamelessly take credit.
In an attempt to rekindle my affection for the English alphabet, I signed up to compete in “So U Think U Can Spell?” — the second annual adult spelling bee hosted by Politics and Prose Bookstore and the SPACIOUS Community. Two nights before the 2013 Scripps National Spelling Bee, members and non-members of the spell check generation came together at Politics and Prose Bookstore for what will surely go down in the annals of lexicography as an epic battle for the ages.
The ever-humorous Stefan Fatsis, author of Word Freak, and renowned lexicographer and editor and Merriam-Webster, Peter Sokolowski, emceed the evening. I took the very first seat in the first row of contestants and tried to remind myself that this was merely a simple bee filled with run-of-the-mill vocabulary words intended for the common man. As long as I could spell under pressure, this evening was going to be a piece of cake. Comforted by my naïve confidence, I took a deep breath, repeated “I before E except after C” in my head, and stepped up to the microphone to face my inevitable doom.
“Your word is Rapport.”
The next minute of my life was a blur. The word jumble in my head would not settle. At this point, I could not even indicate where “I” and “E” fell in relation to “C” in our alphabet. Every spelling tactic went straight out the window. I forgot to visualize the word. I forgot to write it out on my palm. I even forgot to ask for the definition in order to salvage another minute of dignity. With one quick ding of Sokolowski’s bell, my moment was over, and I was free to observe highly skilled competitors tackle words such as “epiglottis” and “saltimbocca” (sure, give them the easy ones).
Amongst the competitors were writers, researchers, retirees, and PhDs. There were products of the British school system and native French speakers. Twenty-six rounds came and went. David Rosen, a math teacher at Walt Whitman High school in Bethesda, Maryland triumphed with the word “exegetical,” an adjective meaning “explanatory.” This was a much deserved victory for a former National Spell Bee contestant placing 11th forty-six years prior.
All of us, with eighteen plus years and various accomplishments under our belts, came together that night by the sheer youthful joy of spelling. Our much younger Scripps Bee counterparts spell and compose themselves with a maturity and poise not taught on the playground. In a tribute to adolescence, we smugly “oooh’d” our lexicographer after his verbal blunder with the same long vowel children collectively sing to taunt the troublemaker caught passing notes by the teacher in class.
Whether it is children spelling like adults or adults spelling like children, I realize now that spelling bees are a kid thing. They just might be, however, the best things keeping us adults young at heart.