I remember the words "mathematics" and "hydroelectric" being key to my success way back in the day, when we had little spelling bees in elementary school.
Speaking of math, we also used to play a fiercely competitive math-based game, too. It involved that timeless, classic educational tool from way back when, flashcards, and the teacher would hold up one flashcard after another and two students would see who could blurt out the correct answer the fastest. The child who prevailed would move onto the next student, who'd get up from his or her desk, and the bloodletting would commence once again, and continue all the way around the room.
Oh, the epic battles my classmate Jeannette Johnson and I had. It was like Ali-Frazier when the two of us stood side by side waiting for the teacher to hold up flashcards displaying, when we were especially young, addition and subtraction problems, and when we were older, multiplication and division. It was never over after the first flashcard. Or the second, or the fifth. "Tie!" our classmates would yell out after we shouted answer after answer in unison. "Tie!" "Tie!" "Tie!" "Tie!"
Eventually, one of us would prevail, and there was no pat on the back for merely participating, no second place ribbon. You either moved onto the kid waiting at the next desk, or you sat your butt back down.
It's kind of like that with spelling words. If you're in a spelling bee, there's no wiggle room, no almost. You either spell the word exactly right, or you're done.
In this age of the art and beauty of words being under constant assault - someone typed " I knowd that!" in a comment thread on the Times’ Facebook page recently - witnessing a spelling bee provides a glimmer of hope. These bright kids, they care enough to seek the satisfaction that comes with spelling words with absolute accuracy, words that would trip up many adults.
The person pronouncing the words for the kids had better be precise, too. I remember taking photos for the Times at the school district spelling bee at Highland School a few years ago, and the pronouncer messed up a couple of words. It was so bad that one girl competing on stage, even after asking for her word to be repeated more than once, didn't know precisely what word she was supposed to spell. She was eliminated and there were some watery eyes. It was awkward and unfortunate, and I voiced my concerns afterward. Sure enough, I was asked to be the bee pronouncer the following year, and I've done it every year since.
It stresses the bejeesus out of me. When I receive the thick packet of words ahead of time, I start studying it as if I were competing myself. For me, the most important page is the one with the myriad phonetic symbols; if I didn’t have that as my go-to reference, there wouldn’t be a dry eye on stage.
I'm not infallible. Young rock star speller Ainsley Boucher, who made it to the national bee last year, on stage at Highland School last week emphasized a different syllable than I had in a word I pronounced for her to spell, but it's not like she did it with any attitude; it was just as if to say, "You may be the newspaper guy with the cool little clip-on microphone, but I've studied this word more than you have." True that, Miss Boucher.
It can be cutthroat and cold-hearted for these fifth through eighth-graders. Our son advanced to the fabled Highland auditorium stage a few years ago, and when I got to the word I had to pronounce for him to spell in one round, I'd never even heard of it.
Then there's Zara Baig. As a wide-smiling fifth-grader a couple years ago, she won the district bee. But then, last year, she inadvertently slipped up in an early round while spelling a word she obviously knew, and, in spelling bees, you can’t change any letters once you’ve spoken them. Baig was finished, and she knew it. So here she was last week, back on stage at Highland as a seventh-grader, and in the very first round when it was her turn, she got a word far more difficult than anyone else in that round, and maybe even tougher than many of the words presented over the next few rounds, "piteously." When I pronounced it, Baig's eyes got a little big and her jaw dropped slightly. Right out of the gate, she'd been presented with a word she hadn't mastered in advance. She misspelled it, and about 45 minutes later Boucher repeated as champ, outlasting Nathan Stenberg and Summer Goulet.
Boucher's winning word was Kilimanjaro. When I said it, some kids on stage who'd been eliminated reacted as if they could have spelled it correctly. The next word on my list after Kilimanjaro, to me, possessed a degree of difficulty in the nightmarish range. After Boucher won, I approached her on stage and showed her that treacherous word.
"I suppose you would have breezed through that one, too," I said.
"I know that one," she said matter-of-factly, surrendering a slight grin.
When I mentioned to my wife a week or so prior to the bee that I would once again be the pronouncer, she said, "Oh, that's one of your favorite things all year."
She’s right. Better than some sort of stuffy, stodgy, tweed-jackets-everywhere writers’ conference, spelling bees celebrate kids and words, and the respect and appreciation the former has for the latter. That, for me, is well worth my annual, brief bout with stress triggered by my hope that I don’t screw up.