Two weeks ago eight kids won the Scripps National Spelling Bee. The headlines and the think pieces proclaimed “The OctoChamps Broke the Bee!” and lauded “The Kids Who Beat the Dictionary.” It’s a very American narrative — it’s billed as an unprecedented triumph of ingenuity and perseverance. Really it’s an entirely predictable goat rodeo borne of intense media coverage and class stratification. I happened to have a ring side seat because my daughter rather surprisingly won our local bee, which means she got a sponsored trip to the National Bee. She had a grand time, learned stuff, and made friends. What she did not do was compete in a spelling bee in any meaningful sense.
About 550 kids participate in the Bee. By “participate” I mean, 100 kids actually spell. Of those, only a couple of dozen are actually even expected to be competitive. Those elite few have to survive a day of endurance spelling, culminating in a prolonged televised event. That last requires their phenomenal linguistic prowess, physical stamina, mental fortitude, and patience for a truly execrable, self-satisfied MC. The MC provides meaningless patter during the numerous television breaks (because the important thing is the broadcaster’s schedule). I was convinced sheer exhaustion would take out the last ones standing. My husband, watching on TV, had more faith. “These kids are stone cold killers,” he said, in tones of deep reverence.
The Bee has a pretty serious mismatch between its own mythology and what it’s become. I’m not necessarily complaining. For the 400 plus kids who are basically filler, there’s still an opportunity to be part of something cool. But after this year, will the Bee have to admit it is not the folksy, inclusive affair it claims to be? If the Bee takes a good hard look in the mirror, what happens to it?
I am a third or fourth generation word nerd. My Mom and Granny saved up interesting words and recited them to each other. However, “spelling bees” were things that happened in Laura Ingalls Wilder books and what not. I think I learned around 2001 that there was A Bee and it was A Thing. Like it was on TV or something. If you win the National Bee, there’s a prize that’s worth nearly a year of private college tuition (before taxes).
Then my oldest kid started middle school and her English teacher sponsors a bee at the school. In sixth grade, my kid won the school bee and went to the “regional” bee. By “regional” I mean the tri-county region of our metropolitan area, because the way the Scripps National Spelling Bee scheme works, you need a local media company sponsor and a school sponsor. Historically “media company” had to be a newspaper. Recall, if you will, that local newspapers are slowly going extinct, and if not extinct, heavily corporate. In our state the largest local media company can’t be bothered. The bee sponsor is the parent company of the small market papers. (I’m not name dropping them because they might not want to be associated with my views, but they were kind and generous). “School sponsor” means a public (or private) school teacher has to take on Yet Another Thing on his or her own time.
That’s what I learned last year. Forty or so kids got together on a Saturday morning at one of the local theaters. Some kids were small, some were large (it goes up to 8th grade only), a few were from private schools and home school associations, most were public school kids. My kid missed her third or fourth word. We went out for lunch and went home, mildly amused by the whole experience.
This year my kid won her school bee again, and went up against 42 other kids in the region for the Saturday morning word fest. A similar array of slightly dorky kids and parents all showed up at the theater, and my kid was the last speller left. I was stunned. People in my family may love words but we tend not to compete in and win things. (Partly because we don’t tend to practice.) But there we were. She was a winning speller and I was the parent of A Speller. The media sponsor featured her in a story, our extended family made us watch the documentary about the 1999 bee “Spellbound.” (More about that in a bit, but I do recommend the film), and “Yay, we get to go to DC!”
The Bee website proclaims:
A Tradition 90 Years in the Making — Every year, students from all walks of life have the opportunity to participate in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, one of the nation’s oldest and most iconic competitions. They progress from classroom to cafeteria, from auditorium to civic center, delighting friends, family, sponsors and fans, just as millions of other students have done before them.
Let’s talk briefly about the 1999 Bee covered in the documentary. The crew follows eight kids, including the eventual winner. One had a super turbo Dad who paid for coaches in multiple languages (seriously, the kid had a travel team of trainers). There were several that studied a lot and had plenty of family support, and a couple were long-shot all-American feel-good stories: parents don’t speak English, and/or small agricultural town, and/or gawky and unsophisticated, single parent, no resources for studying or travel, you get the idea. The documentary follows them through their local final and multiple rounds of spelling, showing the pressures and excitement of being in a big national, televised contest. It also features interviews with past winners, including the winner of the first ever Scripps Bee from 1925. Everyone talks about how amazing and inspiring it is to do this spelling thing.
In Spellbound, the kid who won studied plenty, but she wasn’t the one with the pro staff. The African American girl from DC, the daughter of immigrants from the Texas border, and the farm boy from the Midwest didn’t make it onto primetime TV, but they all participated in demanding spelling rounds. The whole business feels relatable. The Bee takes place in a convention hotel. The boring chandeliers and rows of banquet chairs in the background look familiar.
Now for the Bee in 2019:
First, there’s a pay-to-play element. If you aren’t the winner of a media sponsored spot, you can apply — for a fee. It’s called “RSVBee.” Because cutesy. In theory that’s great because if you live in a community where local news is extinct or doesn’t have budget to sponsor an event and a participant, you still have a chance to compete. Of course this only works if you can pay $1600, not including airfare, and I don’t recall if that participation fee includes the 6 day stay in the $300+ night hotel. (It’s in a glam, mega-resort location now, with media backdrops everywhere, sponsor booths and a general Hunger Games Capital feel).
Second, there’s a written test. It’s a thirty-question multiple choice test including both a spelling and vocabulary knowledge component. That happens on the first day.
With twice as many kids competing, each does much less spelling. Divided into five cohorts of 100+, each cohort takes between 90 minutes and 2 hours to run a single round. In that round, each kid gets to spell one word. The kids from Ashtabula Ohio, Lapeer Michigan, Wenatchee Washington, or Nome Alaska come all the way to DC, and even if they get their word right, they sit back down for the rest of the 90–120 minutes. It’s always a risk of sudden death elimination if you miss a word, but there’s no upside if you pass. You just wait until the next day and all five cohorts go through again. On day three, each kid spells one word, and sits down for 90–120 minutes. At the end of the third day, all the kids have spelled a maximum of two words and just over 100 have been eliminated. (My kid got her first word — ratafia — and missed her second: putrescible).
Now comes the really crazy bit. Remember the written test on the first day? The 400+ remaining kids get scored on the written test. (It’s difficult. I took it. You can too.) The top 100, based on test score, actually get to compete, meaning they spell to elimination. That means roughly 300 of the kids spent two days spelling two words, and were already eliminated by their test scores. They never had a shot to begin with. They were simply never going to compete in the real rounds, whether they got their two words right or not. This is way more distressing when you see the kids with their parents, eating ramen in the hotel patio to save money on food. Whole families with baby brothers and sisters and grandparents come to see their kids compete. I wonder if they have any idea it’s a bit of a set up.
Is this a bad thing? My kid, who was not particularly worked up about any of it, had no complaints other than being bored during the 90+ minutes on stage. It’s worth asking about the goals and interests served, even if the experience has value for non-competitive kids like mine. The eight champions were so far ahead of the field, sending the kids who win their local bees is like sending your best rec league soccer players to the World Cup. Sure, the amateurs are happy to be there, but they’re really more like superfan spectators. Local media sponsors are basically sending extras to form the crowd scenes in a drama with half a dozen leads and a couple dozen billed role players.
Again, this configuration is predictable. Top level amateur sport is a thing of the past. The Olympics gave up the conceit years ago. Even children’s soccer rapidly filters out the kids into “competitive” or “traveling” teams versus “rec”. There are no more stories of Jim Thorpe coming out of genocidal deprivation to win gold. Anything with prestige and reward becomes a contest of who can throw the most resources at it. The kid whose parents have enough time to drive them to meets and enough money to buy equipment becomes the teen who gets private lessons becomes the adult who has a nutritionist, personal trainer, and corporate sponsor.
The myth of the humble hero from obscure roots hangs in the Hall of Champions at the Bee. The first champion speller was a Kentucky boy who spelled “gladious.” (He lived well into his 90s and died in 2011). From about the 1970s, the winners’ pictures and winning words are on banners. I wonder when African Americans were first permitted to compete. Only one speller of African heritage has ever won, a girl from Jamaica in the late 90s. You can see the evolution of the winning words from “chihuahua” and “croissant” to niche professional and academic concepts. I was particularly pleased the word the year I graduated from high school (thirty years ago) was “spoliator”, a concept important to my professional identity — It means Destroyer of Evidence(!). In recent years the words moved beyond trade specific to uniquely specialized scientific concepts: the taxonomic names of insect species, obscure psychiatric symptoms. No one paying attention would think a test designed to eliminate kids on “knoll” or “crinoline” is going is going to eliminate kids who can pull off “cymotrichous”.
At minimum the Bee format requires a kid come from a family with a parent who can take a week off work (or one parent who doesn’t work outside the home). Three of the eight winners for this year’s Bee come from a single sponsoring organization in Dallas Texas. It’s pretty clear they follow the same coaching methodology, if not the same coaches. The winning kids are basically forensic etymologists. They don’t know all of the words, but they know the conventions of Latin, Greek, French, German and Portuguese so as to make educated guesses about words based on meaning and language of origin. The real question is why the Bee didn’t see this coming. A number of the top kids compete in the South Asian Spelling Bee, which did not have a problem finding words difficult enough to cull the field down to one kid. That same kid then became one of this year’s Octochamps (as did the runner-up).
Even if the Bee manages to engineer the final rounds for a pro level of difficulty, that doesn’t change things for the 400 kids wandering around with their study lists clutched in their hands, flying in from Wyoming, or carrying the hopes of rural Utah, and who are going to spend a week spelling two words. You need more spelling time, or fewer kids. Losing the swarms of noncompetitive kids would be a pity. Spelling bee kids are generally adorable and wholesome, and their post awards banquet dance party has an unprecedented level of nerdy cuteness.
Is the solution making local bees harder? Make people pass the written test to attend the Bee, even for local winners? That would probably drive off sponsors and discourage the RSVBee revenue stream. Break up the onsite spelling into mini-rounds so more kids spell competitively? That would require more staff and logistics (more expense), as well as reduce the cachet of having The Pronouncer call every round. Assign a degree of difficulty and group spellers by proficiency to make the equivalent of “Division I” or “minors” rounds? That would make it clear some of the people there have zero chance of winning the prize lottery or even getting on TV, which is already true, but doesn’t make for nearly as good television narrative. We’re a country that likes to pretend anyone could be the next LeBron James or Bill Gates, just waiting to spring to the top of a free market from sheer ingenuity. It’s awkward admitting competition isn’t really like that, and the spoils will likely go to those who enter the race ten yards ahead.