Spelling and other lessons

The Scripps National Spelling Bee, that annual competition where focused & determined youngsters prove yet again that they are way smarter than the rest of us, was held recently. For the second consecutive year, two spellers tied for first place. Gokul Venkatachalam, 14, spelled “scherenschnitte” and Vanya Shivashankar, 13, spelled “nunatak” for the win. They outlasted almost 300 opponents who got eliminated after heartbreaking misspellings.

I can’t even spell “misspellings.”

However, I do have a connection to this year’s contest — popular national contestant and Mississippi first-place champion Dev Jaiswal was one of the spellers in my disastrous first-and-only attempt at being a spelling-bee pronouncer. And before you say “Oh, I’m sure it wasn’t that bad” & “You’re being too hard on yourself,” please note that I have never ever ever been asked back. The truth is that, unlike the young spellers, I was unprepared & thought I could muddle through without much effort. To anyone else who’s asked to pronounce at a spelling bee: YOU CAN’T MUDDLE THROUGH. When the organizers gave me the words I’d have to pronounce and use in sentences a couple of weeks before the bee, I glanced through it and didn’t notice anything too intimidating. I should have looked harder. It was obvious, though, that unlike me, Dev and his co-contestants had approached the bee properly since we quickly zipped through the list — despite my increasingly stumbling pronunciations because WHERE THE HELL DID THESE WORDS COME FROM & WHY HAVEN’T I SEEN THEM BEFORE? — and had to call The Office Spelling Bee Folks for new words. After my failure was complete and avoiding the kind yet sorrowful eyes of the judges, I slipped out quietly and vowed to immediately counteract my poor performance with fried sugary doughnut goodness prepare better in the future.

Thankfully, Dev apparently wasn’t as scarred by that experience as I was. He’s overcome the disadvantage of having me pronounce his words and gone on to become a spelling-bee celebrity. CNN even called him “The inDEVatigable Jaswal” and reported that although he didn’t win, his smile and graciousness earned him a standing ovation. And autograph requests. Autograph requests!

So, to conclude, this young man now has taught me 1) to do your best and 2) to be OK with whatever your “best” is. T-H-A-N-K-S, Dev. (“Thanks:” — plural of Middle English thank, from Old English thanc thought, gratitude; meaning “kindly or grateful thoughts;” used in a sentence as “Thanks, all of you spellers, for showing us what’s really important.”

Spelling Bees and Me

Why I now will mark “be a spelling-bee moderator” off my list of  “Things That Sound Really Easy and Fun and I Bet I’d Be Good At.” — from my upcoming column in the Daily Corinthian’s weekly Community Profiles edition

She said it was going to be easy. She said I wouldn’t have any problem at all.

“All you have to do is read the words,” my friend said. “Just read the words. Easy, easy, easy.”

Of course, when somebody works this hard to convince you that something’s “easy,” you perhaps should ask questions.

But I was so flattered she’d asked me to call the words at the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools district spelling bee in Columbus that I said “Sure! I’d love to!” before I could spell out “maybe I should think about this first.”

I’ve always been fascinated with spelling bees because – and I’m embarrassed to admit this – I’ve never been to one. When my daughters, 27 and 25, were younger, the hours we’d spend studying weekly spelling lists turned them off spelling for fun and they consequently avoided any chance of getting caught up in a spelling bee. So without any real-life experience, my only knowledge came from TV, where stern and somber-looking adults quizzed children relentlessly, and the Broadway musical “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” where people jump around and sing a lot.

I hoped my spelling bee would fall somewhere in the middle – while leaning toward the jumping-around and singing side.

Turns out, though, I was the one meant to provide the fun and good cheer.

“We need somebody who’s sweet and nice to call the words,” my friend said. “We don’t want to intimidate the children. You are the nicest and non-scariest person I know.”

Completely captivated by the image of myself as a smiling and benevolent word-giver, charmingly patting the grateful children on their heads, I couldn’t wait until the competition.

And here let me say that I thoroughly intended to carefully study and research every word on the list my friend gave me a few days before the bee. I did look over the pages and I did pronounce the words … to myself … in my head … well, most of the words. But since the words got progressively difficult and folks assured me the student spellers rarely got to the most advanced level, I didn’t worry about the super hard ones. I mean, what are the chances I’d have to correctly pronounce the words “hoomalimali,” “pickelhaube” and “Baedeker” and use them in sentences?

If I started stumbling, I told myself, I’d fall back on my role as the sweet smiling non-intimidator.  Surely that would be enough.

Nope. It wouldn’t. Because these kids meant business. We quickly found ourselves in the advanced, extremely difficult, you-will-never-ever-use-this-word-in-real-life sections. And they were smarter than me – at least, they apparently had studied the list instead of watching reruns of “The Office” and “Cougar Town” as I maybe did.  One speller after another questioned my definitions and corrected my pronunciations – even familiar words such as “taupe” and “ersatz” are minefields when you have to enunciate them in front of eagle-eared parents. The intimidation factor rose steadily as the spellers looked at me pityingly and proceeded to demolish every advanced word we had. The organizer had to call spelling-bee headquarters for more words and I wondered if I should retreat to the snack room and let one of the kids take over.

Thankfully, we took a half-time break and the judges gave me a pep talk.

“You’re doing fine,” they said. “But toughen up. Don’t smile so much. Be a little intimidating.”

Their advice worked. When I stopped tentatively requesting that the students spell a word and started authoritatively telling them to do so, the competition flowed much more smoothly and everybody seemed happier.

But I think I’ll rest “a spell” before I try this again.