A Message to National Spelling Bee Contestants (a Demographic This Blog May Never Reach)

At long last, I feel uniquely qualified to tell a personal story that is tangentially related to sports. Let us not confuse ourselves; I’m not good at sports in any meaningful way, and none of the things I’m about to talk about are sports, at all, and you probably could have guessed that. All you have to do is take one look at the competitors in the National Spelling Bee or a Quiz Bowl competition to conclude that they are not athletes. Pitting the contestants of the National Spelling Bee against the kids from the Little League World Series in any athletic event would probably involve copious tears and a prompt a forfeit delivered in language so esoteric and pedantic that the Little League kids would get confused, give their opponents wedgies, and walk away. The point is, spelling and trivia sure feel like sports to the people who take them seriously, and these people are many in number.

My own bee experience does not go further than my elementary school dynasty, where I won three straight spelling bees and two straight geography bees (a level of success also enjoyed by my sister, who somehow won the SPANISH spelling bee, where you have to say if a letter has an accent over it, which is something I don’t understand how to do at all). This is to say, my spelling, while serviceable in all practical ways, does not unite me with National Spelling Bee kids. I think the fact that they all spell so well is kinda weird, and almost assuredly the product of near-psychotic parental badgering. However, I know how the spellers feel, since I was on two episodes of “Jeopardy!” in 2012. Each of those kids has one incredibly refined skill, for which they have received fleeting national visibility. They returned home to their schools, and everyone who didn’t already think they were the smartest kid ever thought so after. Then come the questions: how do you know all that? Do they give you a cheat sheet? Their skill is spelling, mine is committing cultural ephemera to memory. Regardless of its real-world applicability, people think you’re Stephen Hawking for it.

This constant ego padding can get into your head. It definitely got into mine during my incomparable run of bee dominance in the late 1990s. A kid asked for my autograph in first grade after I correctly spelled the winning word: “building.” After a while, you just settle into the opinion that your skill makes you better than everyone else, with all of your peers assuming that you’re the smartest person around. You stop believing they’re your peers after a while. But spelling well and being good at trivia don’t get you a seat at the cool kids’ lunch table. I’d imagine that if I’d been able to dunk in sixth grade instead of knowing all the world capitals, then I wouldn’t have had a chance to calm down and become a normal person. It kind of helped me understand the archetype of the NBA player who treats everyone with disdain. It makes me glad I didn’t know how to dunk at an early age (I do now).

Basketball, football, or baseball skills are no more practical than spelling or trivia skills, but if you’re really good at any of these sports, you’re going to feel like they are. And people will tell you that your skill is indicative of your surefire ability to do other things well. Spelling kids: you have proven that you are good at spelling. You have reached the pinnacle of spelling. Nobody on earth can spell better than you. You are not better than anyone or anything by virtue of your spelling talent. But, having an unmarketable skill is more of a blessing than anything. You can channel your constantly reinforced positive opinion of yourself into the confidence to do all sorts of traditionally impressive things, namely, you’ll never have to ask anyone the etymology of a word ever again.

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