In junior high I was in a lot of essay contests. My English teacher Mrs. Hanold was a big fan, especially of contests with a patriotic theme. Once she found me to be a good writer, she excused me from a lot of standard classroom work so I could toil away writing for contests that she unearthed. I was usually awarded my win — a book or certificate or flag or something like that — in an all-school assembly, which no doubt raised Mrs. Hanold’s profile among her peers. At one point I told Mrs. Hanold I was tired of writing patriotic essays and didn’t want to do it any more. Her response was, “I thought you liked your A.” I wasn’t much of a rebel in those days, so I wrote on.
I never participated in a spelling bee, although I was good at both grammar and spelling. While reading the morning news online I came across an item on the Scripps National Spelling Bee, with prize money of $40,000. Wow. I’d have liked that.
I know that kids who enter spelling bees train like marathoners. It’s possible to spell correctly a word you’ve never seen, but random chance enters. “Marocain”, the winning word last year, could just as easily have been “marocane”.
The first international winner, in 1998, correctly spelled “chiaroscurist.” I’ve seen and heard that word, and know what it means. The longest winning word was “scherenschnitte”. Nope. Never seen that one.
I used to read the London Economist, which regularly brought me new and interesting words like “fissiparous”. I don’t read the Economist any more — too dense and I wasn’t getting through it — but I still value vocabulary and spelling and enjoy adding to my competency in both.
“Echolalia”, anyone? A competitor spoke up when the judges thought he’d spelled the word correctly, and he hadn’t. The boy won recognition for honesty, if not the 40K.