Spelling Bee

Of Eccentric Confusions, Prestidigitation, and Legerdemain

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Spelling Bee

Spelling Bee

On Twitter, I revealed one of my great not-so-secret secrets: I used to be a spelling bee champ. Not that hardcore, but it was really cool. In 7th grade, our whole school (all 57 of us) would stand around 8 of us while we battled each other on the spelling of different words. I’d never been in any such competition, so I shrugged the whole idea off until my English teacher said, “Jose, you’re in.”

Oh crap.

I was definitely nervous, but I was OK because, frankly, my intelligence would get me far enough where I didn’t feel I’d embarrass myself. Little did I know that I’d be in a dead heat for what felt like an hour with a fellow nerd / 8th grader, who moved on to the most prestigious Catholic high school in the city (and I’d go to the second-most, coincidentally). Anyways, we’re going word-for-word, sweat dripping into my burgundy sweater, clammy hands, and loudly-beating heart. Then the word came up:

“Spell belfry.”

My brain had the spelling pictured already, so my brain thought it was easy. Yet, this contest between us had been going on so long, my mouth spelled it as, “B-e-l-f-r-e-y.” Death. And the realization that all the 8th graders were cheering on their representative, whereas the 7th graders still gave me props because, in my first year, David almost beat Goliath. Everyone would stare at us, too. Teachers, students, and school aides alike marveled at us going at it for a good hour or so, even as geeky as it might seem to someone who’d never seen this anticipation in person.

The next year, I worked so hard to learn as much vocabulary as possible and integrate it into my essays, speeches, and anything else I could get my hands on and read. My school? Easy. We moved on to the regional spelling bee. Easy. It was the first time any student from my middle school moved past the regionals. Again, a captive audience of kids from all across the region, from all the Catholic schools in Lower Manhattan, even kids who I haven’t seen in well over 2 years were there, cheering me on even as their fellow classmate was on stage. Scary stuff, but, because cell phones hadn’t even been as popular back then, all you heard was the echo in my voice. That’s all. All eyes on me.

Now, onto Manhattan-wide, where I made it pretty deep, but lost to a couple of cute girls, one of whom made it to nationals, so the competition was fierce. No biggie. I made up for it when I saw them 3 years later at the high school dance. (Muhahaha).

In any case, when I look at the Scripps National Spelling Bee Competition, I wonder if people realize just how much pressure they’re under to perform, remembering these words and learning new things along the way. On top of that, I also hope that, with this captive audience, they realize the power of the words they speak, whether they’re absolute nonsense or something they’ll say with conviction.

Certainly, their parents may try to instill in them a little wherewithal under pressure, but I wonder what happens to these burgeoning keepers of the English language. Do they become the writers, philosophers, and journalists or do they go into seclusion, writing our dictionairies in secret? I honestly haven’t done the research on that, but I’d really like to know.

For more important than the ability to spell words in any sentence is the ability to cast spells with your message. And these kids have a captive audience already. They might put that magic to use.

Jose, who defies examination, and deceives you again …

About Jose Vilson

José Luis Vilson is a math educator, blogger, speaker, and activist. For more of my writing, buy my book This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, on sale now.

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