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Spelling bees: It's more than memorizing strings of letters

By Robert Trishman

For the Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, May 29 2013 6:48 p.m. MDT

This week, a large group of people have converged upon the nation’s capital for an intense competition while hemming and hawing over the meaning of words.

But Congress does that every week; it’s someone else’s turn in the spotlight.

The best of the best spellers are taking the big stage in Washington, D.C., to see who will be crowned winner of the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

These students made it through bees in their classes, schools and regions for the right to put their wordsmith knowledge on display and take home the top prize.

Forget March Madness, it’s been arduous and nerve-wracking for these kids since February — and they’re not even whittled down to 64 yet.

I should know — I’ve been in their shoes.

I had the privilege of competing in the 1992 edition of the Bee, representing Hazleton (Pa.) Catholic Preparatory School and sponsored by the Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader newspaper.

The preparation involved may sound tedious, and that’s how it felt for a 13-year-old. Hours of being quizzed by my mother — who was very much a trooper for spending so much time helping me study — on a long list of words had interesting side effects. One warm afternoon, I fell asleep on the couch after another study session. My mom said I started spelling words in my sleep.

Had YouTube been around back then, I might be famous right now for reasons I wouldn’t prefer.

I also took a list of words I had spelled wrong in previous sessions and recorded myself spelling them on a cassette recorder (kids, ask your grandparents what that is), then listened to them at night so I wouldn’t forget.

It came time for the national bee, and while it was exciting to see our nation’s capital city for the first time, I was constantly nervous leading up to the competition.

It didn’t help that the national TV cameras were pointed right where I was sitting. Not an easy spot for a fidgety adolescent boy.

I was even intimidated. All the spellers had received a program with pictures and bios of contestants from around the country. I read about a lot of them and thought, “He/She is much smarter than I am, I don’t stand a chance.” I just wanted to make it to the second day.

And thanks to “inextirpable” and “continuum,” I did.

But on that second day, in the fifth round, I was tripped up by “agglomeration.” I only used one “g,” and that dreaded bell rang that told me I was eliminated.

People ask, “Have you ever used that word again since the spelling bee?” I say, “Yes, I use it when people ask what word knocked me out.”

And that’s it.

So what’s the point? Why are young kids spending early spring learning the spellings, meanings and word origins of a bunch of terms they may never use again?

I can think of a few reasons.

First, study skills. It’s mostly memorization, but there’s critical thinking involved. The brain has to switch between different types of words, because the kind of word could make the difference with even one letter.

Second, endurance. Really, at that age, as much as any child may enjoy spelling, there is nothing fun or exciting about the monotony of spelling words over and over.

Third, patience. A spelling bee — or math problems, or geography questions — require the young mind to stop and think things through, then proceed to the best of their knowledge. One hasty wrong letter, and you hear that bell.

Finally, it stretches young people to realize things they didn’t know were possible. It’s cliche to say that everyone’s a winner, but it is true that each young contestant will achieve a goal they previously had not reached. This brings confidence for the challenges of high school, college and beyond.

I thank my family, teachers and all those who supported me in that journey of words I took 21 years ago. It’s one of my fondest memories, and ever since then I’ve paid close attention during “Bee Week.”

Good luck, spellers. For most of you, it’s the first and last time you’ll ever be on ESPN — which broadcasts the bee (semifinals at noon today and finals at 6 p.m.) — and that may be a good thing. Learn your Latin roots and Greek suffixes. Watch the words of French origin. Always, ALWAYS ask that the word be used in a sentence.

And enjoy it. Remember, you can’t spell “enjoy” without J-O-Y, which should sum up your experience no matter where you finish.

Robert Trishman actually did find a purpose in studying all those words, as he now works as a copy editor at the Deseret News.

EMAIL: rtrishman@desnews.com

Twitter: RobTmanJr

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