National spelling bee contest isn’t bee-all and end-all

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New York eighth-grader wins national spelling bee–Arvind Mahankali, a 13-year-old eighth-grader from Bayside Hills, New York, won the Scripps National Spelling Bee on Thursday, correctly spelling the word “knaidel.” “It means that I am retiring on a good note,” said Mahankali, who attends Nathaniel Hawthorne Middle School 74 and was in his last year of eligibility. “I shall spend the summer, maybe the entire day, studying physics.” (CNN Photo)

 

by Jon Pennington

(CNN) — I’ve always lived in a world of letters and alphabets. One of my earliest recollections is memorizing every line and curve of the ABC’s on a baby blanket my grandparents gave me. I learned to read at an early age, but my favorite books were dictionaries. I wanted no plot, no narrative, just the onrush of one word after another.

This obsessive attention to letters and orthography led me to victory at the 1986 Scripps National Spelling Bee. My winning word: odontalgia, which means toothache.

Winning the Bee can lead to all kinds of aches — headaches, stomachaches, growing pains. But it can also be the time of a young kid’s life. If you were to ask me whether the National Spelling Bee leads to obsessive levels of competition, I would say “absolutely.” But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The same obsessions that lead a child to win a spelling bee are not much different from the obsessions that might someday lead a scientist to the cure for cancer.

What is great about the Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee is that it provides a safe space for prepubescent kids to meet peers with a similar obsession for words. When I was in junior high, public schools tolerated a much higher background level of bullying than they do in the post-Columbine era, but when I was at the Spelling Bee, I fit in. Yes, I won the championship, and I am always grateful for that, but ironically, the downside to being champion is that it gives you a lot less time to socialize with your fellow word nerds.

People ask me what it was like to win the National Spelling Bee, but I mostly remember the lights and flashbulbs of the press that followed my victory. They were so blindingly bright to me I eventually borrowed my mother’s tinted sunglasses to cut down on the glare. I was flown from Washington to New York to appear on “Good Morning America,” then flown back almost as quickly to shake hands with President Ronald Reagan in the White House Rose Garden.

Then it was on to “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. (For those of you younger folk, Johnny Carson is the late night TV guy before the other late night TV guy before Jimmy Kimmel.) Carson was extremely personable to me and seemed to prefer hosting “ordinary” guests like a spelling bee winner or some farmer who won a Guinness World Record for growing the world’s largest pumpkin instead of going through yet another interview with a movie star trying to plug his or her latest film.

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