The O-B-S-C-E-N-I-T-Y of Spelling Bees
Zak Slayback

I read this article with great interest. One reason is that one of this year’s co-champions, Vanya Shivashankar, is from our area. Another reason is that I competed in the National Spelling Bee in 1962. I’ve seen “Spellbound” and read numerous articles over the years about how the Bee has changed. I wouldn’t go so far as to call today’s Bee an obscenity, but it makes me sad.

My experience was wonderful. The kids I met there were just like me — naturally smart kids who all had lives beyond spelling. (I played the guitar, participated in regular school and church activities, spent Saturdays on the beach with my family, went to slumber parties, and met my friends at the bowling alley, just like any other 8th grader in Corpus Christi. I did spend time before every Bee drilling on lists of words with my father, but he knew when it was time to quit.) When we got to Washington, it was time to have fun! We line danced in the halls of the Mayflower Hotel, met Bob Hope and LBJ, and thoroughly enjoyed the group sightseeing opportunities. Nobody seemed overly stressed about the actual competition. I was perfectly satisfied to go down right in the middle of the pack, and I corresponded with some of the friends I made there for many years.

Kids in 1962 were not expected to be ACCOMPLISHED at anything. When I look at the way many upper-middle-class children are being raised these days, it seems as though they’re expected to pick out some pursuit (with strong direction from parents) and become a professional. These families don’t seem to place much value on a balanced life, and that’s what’s so sad. Family life should not center on spelling bees or gymnastic meets.

I raised my own child in the 70s and 80s to be an amateur. He came out rather well. He has an M. Div. from Yale, is an Anglican priest in Edmonton with a thriving parish, is raising his own kids the same way — and he’s an absolutely terrible speller.

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