Just today, in an op-ed piece for NBC News via THINK, Megan Francis takes on the legitimacy of the spelling bee. Though Ms. Francis seems like a great mom who puts much thought, love, and care into the raising of her 10-year old daughter Clara, I’ll have to respectfully disagree with her conclusion: “I question [the spelling bee’s] usefulness as a regular, celebrated, school-wide event at the elementary-school level.”
Come on now.
My heart goes out to Clara and her mom. It really does. It’s no fun when you have to sit down after missing an important word. Or when you disqualify yourself because you’re such a pile of nerves that you can’t spell at all. Or when you have to re-live and re-live that one tragic spelling blunder that haunts you well into middle school.
It seems like yesterday. Mrs. Lockwood, my fourth-grade teacher, called out the word “donkeys” in the final round, and I confidently spelled it “d-o-n-k-i-e-s”. Then I heard it: Mrs. Lockwood looked at one of my two remaining opponents and said “donkeys”. I knew what that meant: I was done. Ouch. But you can bet your bottom dollar that the crucible of that spelling bee made a lasting impression on me. Believe me, I never misspelled “donkeys” again! Sure, the parents have to do a little seat-squirming, and the kids have to suffer a little embarrassment from time to time, but isn’t that pretty good practice for life? (I’ll even credit my love for spelling, at least in part, for my 2007 appearance on Wheel of Fortune, but that’s another blog for another day.)
I’m not trying to be insensitive here, y’all. I know that spelling doesn’t come easy to everybody, and I’m probably biased because it came easy for me, but I cringe every time I hear that we ought to throw out another of our childhood rituals. What could be inherently wrong, after all, with a good old-fashioned spelling bee?
O.K., so here’s the whole truth. About the same time that I was learning to be a decent speller, I also signed up for diving. Our small town was blessed with a retired Olympic diving coach, and he offered free lessons to every kid who wanted to learn. (I’ll include a pic of Coach “Moose” Moss at the pool he built out on his farm.) Well, I worked for a year to prepare for my first diving meet. The highest degree of difficulty for which I signed up was an “inward”. (You turn around at the edge of the diving board, jump backwards, and then quickly transition into a dive – while still facing the board.) Don’t be too impressed: I was only doing this from the low dive. (Why I’m admitting that to you I’m not quite sure.)
Anyway, it was the day of the diving meet, and my turn finally came. Our whole team was wearing green swimsuits, but mine seemed shinier than everybody else’s. The material was somehow a little off. You know how it goes when your mom didn’t exactly get your order right, but you just now notice it – when everybody’s watching. (When insecure and in doubt, blame your mom, right?) As I looked across the pool at the three judges assembled for the meet, I knew that this was going to be my shining moment! (The way it worked was this: about the time a diver came up out of the water, the three judges would announce their three scores – for everybody to hear.) So I completed my dive, with one slight problem: I didn’t quite complete my dive. I came up out of the water only to hear this – and in my mind it was breaking news heralded around the world: “Fail Dive” … “Fail Dive” … (wait for it) … “Fail Dive”. All three judges had declared it: I was no diver. (And I was never going to be a diver.)
But you don’t see me out writing op-eds against competitive diving, do you?
We each have our gift or gifts. The Apostle Paul made that point abundantly clear (First Corinthians 12:1-31), and I simply say “Amen.”
That same year, among other words more complex than “donkeys”, I learned to spell “phenolphthalein”. I’m not making this up – I was really proud of that word! In fact the mayor of our town, Willie B. Withers, gave me an old spelling primer – and in it Mayor Withers inscribed: “For Charles, the best speller in the country.” I never forgot that endorsement. I’m still proud of it.
I can sympathize with the parental angst of Ms. Francis, but surely there are kids like me who still need the spelling bee! There must be a connection between good spelling and rocket science. I’m absolutely certain of it.
By the way, who needs diving when you’re the best speller in the country?