How Bad Could It Bee?

By Peg Goldstein, TFCB Author and Freelance Editor


When my neighbor Caroline asked me recently to be a judge at a spelling bee at her son’s middle school, I didn’t hesitate. “You’d be really good for it,” she said. I replied instantly, “Yes, I would be.” Twenty-plus years of thinking about how to spell things has trained me well for this assignment. I thought it might be interesting, but I had no idea it would be the greatest thing I’d ever done in my life.

Caroline was very nervous but had prepared well for her job as pronouncer, moderator, and overall MC. I didn’t give the bee much thought until the morning of, at which point I asked myself, “What should I wear?” I quickly decided to go with my “Ann Arbor undergraduate look,” which is what I wear every day anyway.

We arrived early to set up. I met my fellow judges—a high school history teacher and a parent—and the record keeper, who had the hard job of quickly writing down how each kid spelled each word, looking up definitions in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (unabridged) when requested, and keeping track of all the rounds and who went out when. We judges had pretty much the easiest and most prestigious job. We had the list of words in front of us. If the kid spelled the word right, we held up a green card. If the kid got it wrong, we held up a red card. Even though this was easy, it made me feel like a real intellectual.

Before the kids showed up at the bee, Caroline went over their names to determine the order in which they would spell. The names were not unexpected in this day and age and locale: Phoenix, Skyler, Clementine, and so on.

There were supposed to be twelve spellers, but one girl variously claimed to have epilepsy, mono, and H1N1 virus and managed to get her mother to call her in sick. Caroline explained that a lot of these eighth graders thought they were too cool to be in a spelling bee and wanted out of it desperately, so we ended up with mostly seventh graders—five boys and six girls.

Ding! The first round began. This was an easy round—almost a practice round with ridiculously simple words such as kick, and everyone got through fine. Green cards. Surprising to all, our first elimination came on the word spleen, which the young lady spelled s-p-l-e-n. She must have been nervous or just wanted to leave, because most lavishly educated seventh graders (did I mention how much this school costs per year?) could figure out that s-p-l-e-n doesn’t spell spleen. We judges held up our red cards for the first time—feeling important yet sorry for her loss.

The next casualty came soon afterward. Caroline pronounced the word: spatula. The sly-looking young man at the podium looked slightly stricken. He requested that the word be used in a sentence and asked for the definition and country of origin, as was his right per the “Rules for Local Spelling Bees” issued by the Scripps National Spelling Bee organization. The young man took a stab at it: s-p-a-c-h-u-l-a. Red cards across the table. According to Caroline, Mr. Sly had never wanted to be in the spelling bee in the first place.

The words were starting to get a little harder: glucose, alcohol, biopsy. No one missed anything until a boy blew it with thesaurus. He spelled it t-h-e-s-a-u-r-a-u-s. Red cards. The field was thinning. The words got harder (cyanide) but still not that hard.

Then we hit the second page of our word list and dropped three kids almost back to back with allegory, yakitori, and chromosome. I’d never even heard of yakitori. That word seemed kind of unfair to me, but apparently the kids have a “word bank” that they study from, so in theory they could have prepared for that one.

We lost two more with croquet and cochlear, and the next thing you know we were down to two boys: Liam and Jesse. Unlike most of the other spellers, Liam was super-enthusiastic. He wore his long hair in a braided ponytail, with bangs across his forehead, and appeared to be a fan favorite. The other finalist, Jesse, was bored and moody looking—in a cool sort of way.

The way it works in spelling bee competition is kind of like a tiebreaker in tennis. You have to win by two. So even though Liam screwed up on myriad, Jesse wasn’t the winner until he spelled two words in a row correctly. One glance at the list and I knew he had it: encroachment and yachtsman didn’t seem that hard, especially compared to serotonin, agglutinate, and saccharide, which had come earlier. Jesse was all confidence. He rattled off both words to win the bee.

My stint as a spelling bee judge left me on cloud nine. Who knows why? The pageantry? Liam’s hairdo? I guess it doesn’t matter. I just hope I get to bee a judge again next year.

Check in next week for more from TFCB!

(Illustration above: “Spelling-commons” courtesy of Wikimedia/CC)

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