March 17th, 2010

Gird Your Loins, Yeoman, For The Day of The State Spelling Bee Finals Is Upon Us

by Philip Baruth

It’s a very serious spelling day here at VDB: I’ll be over at St. Mike’s, acting as pronouncer at the State Finals for the National Spelling Bee, and if you blow even one syllable or a homonym, basically your name is mud in the spelling community forever after. Especially since the rules also require me to watch out for anyone who, “in the process of spelling, utters unintelligible or nonsense sounds.” But it reminded me of this piece I did a few years back, on judging another spelling bee with Vermont First Lady Dorothy Douglas. Might help kill the tail end of a dull lunch hour.

Notes from the New Vermont
Commentary #158: Let It Bee

It’s 1974, I’m twelve years old, and I’m in the final round of the Spelling Bee at the Booneville Fair. Suddenly I get the word “guarantee,” a word I know very well. I proceed to blow it: G-u-a-r-e-n-t-e-e.

I’m quickly hustled off the stage.

But not before the moderator slips in a little joke, to the effect that making it into the finals is no guarantee you’re actually going to win. Everyone in the grandstands thinks this is hilarious.

I’m silent on the way home. But once there, I eat three big sad bowls of Captain Crunch, followed by a pack of Ho-Ho’s and a liter of Dr. Pepper.

Even today I’m pretty bitter about it.

So when the Vermont Humanities Council asked me to judge the final round of their Spelling Bee for Literacy, some dark force inside me jumped at the chance.

Because I realized that one of two things was going to happen: either I’d finally lose the chip on my shoulder and come to love spelling again, or I’d have the power to make thirty other people cringe for the rest of their mortal lives every time they hear some simple everyday word they thought they knew how to spell.

Of course, there’s a catch. My word won’t be final: Vermont’s First Lady, Dorothy Douglas, is the other judge. But I figure at a key moment in the last round, I’ll seize total power.

The Spelling Bee is held at St. Michael’s College, and like everything St. Michael’s does, it’s done with real class. The McCarthy Recital Hall is packed, and the spellers are immediately broken out into three rooms.

Each room is running the same word lists, so if you jump between them, you get this weird sense of parallel linguistic universes. In all of these universes, the people who get the word calzone seem very happy; the people who get arachnophagous seem less so.

But it’s a mistake for me to watch these early rounds because I start pulling for these people.

They’re teams of three, lots of students and teachers. But even the all-adult teams, composed of real word people — lawyers, writers, librarians — even these teams look like kids when they face the microphone.

Because the fear is very real. There are always moments in a spelling bee when the speller has never seen the word before — when not one person in the entire audience has ever seen the word before. In terms of memory, the room is in total darkness.

And still the speller has to intuit the shape, mold it by the light of their imagination alone. When and if the judge blesses this shape, it’s more like a good séance than anything else, and you get a ripple of chills up your back.

So by the final round, the ancient chip on my shoulder is nearly gone, and I decide not to seize total power from Dorothy Douglas.

It’s a good decision, because Dorothy Douglas turns out to be an extremely decent woman, who cares deeply about illiteracy in Vermont. Even when one of the final words actually turns out to be empleomania, which means “an excessive desire for holding public office,” I don’t have the heart to turn and make a joke about it.

The very last word of the day is chrysanthemum, and that’s my heart when all of the spelling is done: a fresh bud, beaded with the morning dew.

[This piece aired previously on Vermont Public Radio. You can find the audio archived here.]