Spelling and Meaning

Have you ever seen the word “paixtle”? Do you know the language of origin or how to use it in a sentence? More importantly, can you spell it on stage in front of a full audience and cameras clicking all around you? No? Well, maybe you’ll have better luck with “ctenoid.” The “c” is silent (obviously). And yet, for hundreds of young students, the Scripps National Spelling Bee is the culmination of hours spent studying dictionaries, reading vocabulary lists, and learning different etymology patterns of multiple languages so that they could correctly spell those two words and many, many others too.

It’s even more impressive considering the participants in the Bee are no older than fifteen (or eighth grade). Many had previously attended the event as young children. They’ve been coached for years, practicing all the time. You’ll see students who are focused and determined to win, demonstrating a remarkable drive to become champions.

On screen we witness the brilliance of these young spellers. And we also see evidence of another reality: they’re kids. They let their personalities shine on stage. They joke around with the judges; they smile on camera. During interviews, their answers are candid and honest (and of course their grammar is perfect too). If someone misses a word, they can count on a line of high-fives when they exit the stage. If a particularly challenging word is spelled correctly, the other competitors applaud enthusiastically. Moreover, both participants and spectators alike recognize and appreciate all the effort that the competitors have invested. When was the last time you saw a 13-year-old receive a standing ovation for an incorrect answer? The competitors want to win; they take the Bee seriously, and yet they don’t take it too seriously. No whining about the officiating; none of the “win at all costs” mentality. Watching the Spelling Bee, you get a sense of what is possible when the spirit of competition meets the excellence of sportsmanship. During the final few rounds, the last two competitors spent time chatting with each other in between words. You think that happens often in sports? I hardly think Tiger Woods is joking around with Rory McIlroy walking up to the 18th green. Roger Federer and Andy Murray aren’t sharing a bench after the first set. And it’s not because there isn’t a lot on the line at the Bee. A $30,000 prize greets the winner, not to mention the recognition and interviews that will occur throughout the following year. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime for these kids (many have spent almost that much time preparing for the Bee), and yet they seem to keep it in the proper perspective.

I am amazed at how often I hear a word I can’t even pronounce, and then a kid much younger than me rattles off the correct spelling without hesitation. They put in the time, the effort, and the passion toward accomplishing their goal. And if their journey ends when they miss a word, they say thank you and leave the stage with a smile anyway. That’s quite a way to carry yourself, win or lose. We can learn a lot from the way these kids compete every year. If you’re willing to look for a deeper meaning, you’ll surely learn more just than the definition of feuilleton (which was the final word this year by the way).  AN

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