Thursday, January 12, 2012

It's sort of like the geek Olympics

Everyone has something they do well that isn't especially useful in everyday life. Some can juggle, others moonwalk, and a few are really good at that trick where it looks like you've pulled off the top of your own thumb (which always creeps me out a little...Who thought of that in the first place? I'll bet it was a guy.)

The people in our family, for whatever reason, are good spellers. Now I know that spelling really is a handy everyday skill, but it's spelling BEES where we really excel. And after the age of about 13, it's not often that you're called to stand on a stage in front of hundreds of people and spell a word given to you by a panel of judges.

Every year, our middle school holds a spelling bee featuring three contestants from each of four grades (5th through 8th). It's kind of a cool thing, and the winner goes on to compete in the county spelling bee, the winner of which goes to the tri-county bee, and the winner of THAT moves on the National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C.

My kids have won the middle school bee three times, and we have a couple of runner-up finishes to our credit, as well. Elissa won it in 2007 and 2008, while Chloe won last year. Last year's runner-up behind Chloe? Her brother Jared.

And do you know what all of that and 4 bucks will get you? A skinny peppermint mocha at Starbucks.

Oh, and a nice trophy, too. But that's about it. Like I said, spelling itself is a useful skill, but winning spelling bees is an abitrary combination of good luck and years spent reading books, which my kids like to do.

The middle school spelling bee always happens in January, which means another edition is coming up later in the month. Jared qualified for it, and he has a shot at winning...or he could finish last. Seriously, that's how random these things can be. You can know 99% of the words on the judges' lists, but if that one word you don't know comes up in the first round and you miss it, have a seat and thanks for playing. You're done.

Having been a witness to competitive spelling bees for the last several years, I've noticed there are different levels when it comes to spelling prowess. Elissa, Chloe and Jared are good, but it requires a whole other stratum of word geek to win at the county or regional level. And to make it to Washington? You have to be a borderline genius.

We actually have one of those geniuses in our school system. Carly Nelson -- who finished second to Elissa as a 5th-grader -- won the school, county and tri-county bees in 2009 and earned a trip to The Big Time. She didn't win there, but just making it that far was an incredible accomplishment.

The finals of the national bee are televised on ESPN. ESPN! Isn't that something? And I love watching them, because the announcers analyze every word and every contestant like it's the Super Bowl.

Not to stereotype here, but many of the kids who make it to Washington are, well, Asian. They may be the first generation in their families actually born in the U.S., but they know the English language a thousand times better than those of us whose families came to the New World centuries earlier. They're generally very high-achieving kids with stratospheric SAT scores and a list of extracurriculars longer than your arm.

You would hate them all if you weren't so busy rooting for them.

The words they spell are comically difficult. The organizers could just as easily make words up and I would believe they were real. And these kids would still manage to spell them correctly. As I've come to learn, it's not so much that the kids know all of the hard words per se, but rather they know prefixes and suffixes, languages of origin, etc. In other words, they understand rules and patterns, which in turn helps them spell words neither you nor they have ever heard before.

Having done the game show thing myself, I know that people only tend to ask about the things you get wrong. In Elissa's case one year at the county spelling bee, it was the word "wanderlust." She had never heard it, and the MC did an absolutely terrible job of pronouncing it. She clearly said it as "wonderlust," and that's how Elissa spelled it. I don't want to be the bitter parent here, but that woman screwed up.

Chloe's downfall at last year's county bee was "pinafore." She forgot to put the "e" at the end. What are you gonna do?

Anyway, no matter how Jared does or whether or not another Tennant child ever wins a spelling bee, I'll always be very proud of my kids and their accomplishments. Really. If Jared goes out in the first round of this month's competition, he'll only be grounded for two months. We're good parents that way.


  1. What was the thing that you, Cole and I did that was some kind of history question bee? I just remember I only got in because John was feeding me answers during the tryouts (I sure hope the statute of limitations has run out on that) and then I had laryngitis (can you spell check that for me?) at the event.

  2. I think it was the Citizen Bee? All I know is, I didn't last especially long!

  3. My 11yr old, Joe was in the district spelling bee last year. I totally agree with you about the person pronouncing the words. One kid got out on the word " eyelet" because it really sounded like she said "Island". Of course he really should have asked for it in a sentence, but it was his first word, they really were not advised to ask for it in a sentence until several got out because the lady was bad a pronouncing words.....but I'm not bitter at all.
    On the bright side, Joe will never again spell biscuit or whisk incorrectly.

  4. To this day I still remember the question I missed that kept me from 3rd place (which would have been in the money!). Something about a war in 1904 and I said Spain and Mexico and the answer was Russia and Japan.

  5. Patti Marn aka MammaJanuary 12, 2012 at 8:59 AM

    Being great spellers offers another benefit....valuable blog material for Dad to write about bringing smiles to faces of all his 'followers'.

  6. 80 years ago I went out on "whether", spelling it weather

  7. Oh no, Uncle Dan! (And I can't believe it was 80 years ago when you were in a spelling bee. Maybe 20 years ago?)

  8. I can always tell when it's Jared that Marissa is texting. That is the only time I'm ever asked "Mom, how do you spell..."