The Literacy Battle Royale

I must have committed some awful ungodly sin to get the punishment I did, where I waited all through grade school for a school-sponsored spelling bee, waited expectantly for a televised hour that never came. And then, the moment I reach high school… Southern Middle enstates a school bee.

This is an eternally crushing fact. I’ll never be young enough for the Spelling Bee in this lifetime. I could hold out for reincarnation, but what’s the chance that by the time I’m dead and 13 again there’ll be a spelling bee (or a world) left to compete in?

Oh well. When God closes a door, He backs out of the garage, or whatever. (I would have won.)

My younger sister is in eighth grade, young enough for the Bee, and she was wordcanny enough to get into the school preliminaries. I took the mantle of the “you shall live for me, son, and resurrect my lost glories” archetype, and trained my sister in the craft of guessing letters.

I have an interesting training regime for my padawan. All words are built out of the same essential parts, so if you can recognize and spell the parts, you can spell the word. So I quizzed her on words that don’t exist but consist of parts of words that do exist. And she got them right, despite not possibly having heard them before.

chronosynclastic infidibulum

seminarcotic polygmacite

chlorasomarama

You could pronounce those, couldn’t you? And yet they don’t mean anything (as far as I know) (though the first one is from an old Kurt Vonnegut book called The Sirens of Titan“).

Sadly this strategy did not prevail – my little sister lost in the third round, and lost her chance forever to make spelling history. There’s sometimes controversy over the brutal way of turning kids down without consolation; I saw one documentary where someone called it “a form of child abuse.”

These kids have clearly studied forever. They’ve built up their lives for this. And some of them fail dismally – but all of them get a little bit of fame and recognition, at least for a while.

I remember the Geography Bee from elementary school. For two years of that I was up in the top ten for the school semifinals. We all got podiums and positions on the cafeteria stage, and an hour-long assembly was called where the whole school watched us compete. Parents showed up to watch their kids beat other kids in the battle for the capitol of Paraguay.

In the days leading up to that competition, we were celebrities.

For the rest of the year we were nerds. And that’s the real purpose of the Bee: to perform an unbelievable feat of magic and make the weedy kids champions.

Good luck for everyone headed for the national Bee in 2013!

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