The 90th Scripps National Spelling Bee is underway at this hour in Washington. To this day I can’t think of a spelling bee competition without thinking of the Space Invaders attract mode, and not just because one of the little guys skitters out to correct a word in the high-score table.
I was 10 years old. My brother, Fletch, was 12, in the Bee’s regional competition for northwest North Carolina at Winston-Salem’s Benton Convention Center. This was a big family event, so I was made to dress up in Sunday clothes and come along and shut up.
If I had to watch my brother spell 20 or 40 words one after another, I probably could have sat through it no problem. But there must have been at least six dozen kids in the competition field, and all of them had been coached to ask for the word’s form of use; ask for it to be used in a sentence, ask for its definition and ask for its language of origin, turning a word everybody knew, like “commode,” into a four-minute ordeal.
On and on and on it went. It must have been an hour before someone was sent off.
To pass the time, I would slip out of the ballroom for the lobby, where I found an old cocktail table-model Space Invaders. I had no quarters, so I just watched the attract mode, rooting for that stupid turret even though I knew it would never kill more than five aliens.
My brother and I never fought, nor were we sibling rivals who secretly or even overtly hoped the other would fail. But when I came back to see Fletch belled out of his first big-time bee, I put both fists in the air.
Thank God, I thought, now we can go eat at Chi-Chi’s.
If you’re a bona fide masochist, there are a couple dozen hours of Spelling Bee programming spread across three of ESPN’s broadcasting platforms today and tomorrow. We’re a decade past the big fad of the Bee’s televised heyday, and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, but it still blows my mind there’s an audience for this. Even a minute of a spelling bee wakes up my fidgety, shushed memories of best-behavior purgatory 35 years ago.
My big brother was a two-time regional competitor, always a threat in the city schools’ bee, going back to his primary school days. In second grade, he was one of the last two standing, belled out on a cruel technicality; he didn’t specify that “February” had a capital F. By seventh grade, Fletch was a spelling machine, up in front of the mike on the balls of his feet, slipping all of the dirty punches a bee throws and tapping his mouthguard in reply. He was eating prefixes and crapping diphthongs.
In 1984, I was a dark horse contender out of fifth grade, a fourth-year newspaper carrier, self-taught in the onomatopoeic tradition of MAD magazine’s Don Martin. Mom and Dad were so proud of us. But Mom and Dad being proud of us always put me on red alert, because that usually set an expectation I’d have to beat later. Also that year, I had been thrown out of our middle school’s Class for Academically Gifted Mutants or whatever that was called back then. I had come to realize that was nothing but extra homework, and I wasn’t going back to that life.
My first word was “seriatim,” an adverb meaning “taking one subject after another in regular order, point by point.” I recognized it as a cousin of the word “verbatim” and guessed its root as pertaining to “serial.” I didn’t ask for a definition, use in a sentence or anything, though.
“Seriatim,” I said. “B-Z-X-Q-M-Y. Seriatim.”
Fletch was astonished. “I wish to God I had the balls to do that,” he told me yesterday.
Nonetheless, he still dismantled a sixth-grade magic-user from my D&D party, shut down a snotty girl who called our mother by her first name, and mopped the floor with longtime rival Glenn Perkins (“Oh, he never beat me in a competition that counted.”) to take the city schools’ title. My brother was going to Winston, where Dad had been a copy editor for the Twin City Sentinel, reading lead type upside-down and backward before we were born.
Funny things happen when you get to a big-time place like the Benton Convention Center, though. Microphones feed back and cut out. People cough and sneeze. And sometimes you get a judge with country-fried pronunciation.
My brother had a great ear for phonetics, but it was also his Achilles’ heel. Any competitor is at a distinct disadvantage when he comes from a region where “creek” is pronounced as “crick.” I vividly remember some poor SOB before Fletch getting belled out on a word as simple as “accurate.” The judge had pronounced it as “ack-rit,” as many Southerners do.
This is why everyone asks for a definition and usage in a sentence. The speller didn’t and, thinking he had heard the word "acrid," spelled that instead.
I remember the boy’s haunted parents hovering over him as he crumpled up in the row in front of us, just a shell of his eighth-grade self. He was some city kid, too. Probably blew his chance at getting into Duke.
My brother finished 20th, rung up on “totalitarian,” a word I always found ironic in these circumstances. The twangy judge put a schwa in that first syllable and Fletch went fishing for it like a slider outside the strike zone.
“Totalitarian,” said Fletch. “T-E-T-A-L...” Ding.
Throughout all of this, the lesson to me was clear: Correct spelling is good, but bad things happen once you start giving a shit about it.
So, spell it with me: Eff the Bee.