I'm here at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center just outside Washington, DC, again for the National Spelling Bee. And it is a wild time. It's always great to be back here. But for the first time, I am not in control of things, and this hits my nerves something fierce.
Let me explain. As a speller, yes, you are on stage, with all the cameras pointed at you, with everyone in the auditorium staring at you, as you try to spell words correctly. But you know if you know the word, and if you don't, you know if you think you can sound it out. As an audience member, you don't have that luxury. You can only hope the speller gets their word right. It's even worse if you are a family member, a friend, or a coach...you're not just enjoying the competition, you have a Vested Interest up there, and you want so, so badly for them to succeed, and you'll feel just awful if they don't.
For the last ten months, I have been coaching a young man whose father sent out a Craigslist ad asking for a spelling coach. This young man has been absolutely fascinated with the English language and all its intricacies. And with the help of movies, videos, and innumerable personal anecdotes, I have turned him on to bee culture in a HUGE way.
He won his district and state bees, and now he's here in DC, with 277 other peers, to compete. And as a visible previous national champion, I'm competing alongside him, also in a potentially very visible way. I may become a regular coach for spellers, and I've been slowly coming to the realization that with this bee rests a fair bit of my reputation going forward.
All the excitement in the world can be dissolved in an instant when you see your protege exit the written test round, mumbling slightly dejectedly about how he flat-out didn't know 4 of 50 words on the written test, and 2 others he kindasorta knew but still had to guess on. Here's the tough part: 25 of those words will count, and 25 are decoys. So this means that he could theoretically score as low as 19/25, or get a perfect score. If the former, then there is no chance he will make it to the semifinal rounds, which is his goal. If the latter, then his chances are virtually 100%. (See, he needs to spell two words out loud tomorrow as well, and hopefully get
those right. Fortunately, those words are from lists he knows down cold.)*
I'm trying to console myself with the thought that everyone will live and die by the same sword - the same 25-word test. And I'm probably overthinking and overdramatizing. But it definitely makes you pause: did I give him the right words to study? Did I give him the proper tools? Will he be okay? Suddenly, I find myself in the same position as other coaches...and more to the point, anxious parents who want their kids to succeed so badly.
So after this bit of unnerving news, and after some reflection, I walked down to the Hall of Champions, where banners show every winner at the moment of triumph from 1969 forward (along with their winning word). I'm up there, natch. There's also three displays with blurbs, pictures, and paraphernalia about the bee from its very inception forward.
Alex Cameron, for the previous generation of spellers (of which I'm a member), was the avuncular, comforting deep voice of the bee - literally and figuratively. His sentences were drier compared with Jacques Bailly's current jocularities. And he didn't radiate much charisma. But he was solid, stalwart, and reliable in a sea of chaos, and I really appreciated his presence and friendly nature throughout the bee. He unexpectedly died in 2003, after which a colleague of his wrote this poem/prayer in his honor:
God, bless all the
keepers of words --
the most exotic of creatures --
because we need their precision to measure,
their colors to dream,
and their rhythms to sing.
Bless all the children learning to spell,
most of all when they are told
they must always go from left to right
and when they discover that every rule
at the worst possible time,
turns out to have an exception.
Bless most of all the children who stand alone,
moving a hidden finger along an invisible pad,
on a stage where the judges are armed with sentences
prepared in advance, and it is nearly impossible to be cool.
God, bless the words themselves,
as they flow through history
from the Himalayas, the Alps, and the Andes,
into the wide Midwestern river
where once, in a book,
a runaway boy sailed on an abandoned raft
and with a voice borrowed from servants,
spoke to a runaway slave,
and suddenly found the father he had always wanted
and the father he deserved.
God, help us to remember
the saints who sit on the porches of heaven,
practicing words like "euphuistic" and "pantagruelian,"
because they have lived in our world
and know that, sometimes, life is exactly like that.
Let them know that we are grateful
for every word
when we need to understand each other
and speak to you.
This poem is printed on one of those displays. It's a great reminder of the inspiration and legacy that Dr. Cameron left behind, and it somehow provided a bit of solace to me in the midst of the chaos at the bee right now. Bless these children up on stage, indeed, for they are about to go through a mighty crucible.
*As I found out later, my speller's chances to make it to the semifinals were far better than I had originally expected. Apparently, the written test in 2012 was significantly harder than in 2011, and therefore, one could misspell more words yet still move on to the semifinals.