I once earned 100 extra-credit points in eighth grade for diagramming sentences, the same year I won the Washington County Spelling Bee, so it’s no surprise that I really like spelling bees.
Which is why I was disappointed when the Chartiers-Houston Community Library was forced to cancel its Adult Extreme Spelling Bee this weekend after just two teams – including the Old Navy team from Tanger Outlet that held bake sales to raise the $150 entry fee – signed up.
I think I know one of the reasons why.
The battle for the “Best of the Hive” title was doomed because it had the misfortune of being held on the same night as the Washington Rotary Club’s 10th annual Charity Trivia Contest. I’m not kidding: The trivia contest is one of the most fun ways a person can spend a night in Washington County (although I like diagramming sentences and spelling, so we might have different definitions of fun). It’s cheaper than the spelling bee – $30 per person – and there are door prizes, pizza, snacks and beer.
Last year, 32 teams of four to eight players spent more than three hours answering questions like, “In what state is the only U.S. commercial tea plantation located: Hawaii, Florida, Alabama or South Carolina?” (it’s South Carolina) and, just as important, eating and drinking.
But for me, you can’t beat a spell-off, and I’m thinking there’s no reason a spelling bee can’t draw that kind of crowd. After all, you won’t find a trivia contest on ESPN, but every May millions of people tune in to the Scripps National Spelling Bee to watch smart kids vie for the title in one of the most hotly contested academic events in the country.
The prime-time telecast has averaged at least 4 million viewers each year since 2006, according to Amy Goldstein, an editor at ESPN.com who came in fourth in the 1998 national bee (she misspelled the letter H, which is spelled “aitch,” and it still bothers her).
I like Goldstein a lot because she’s an excellent speller, a sports junkie, and she loves the Pittsburgh Penguins even though she grew up in Long Island, N.Y. The Goldsteins, it turns out, are the von Trapps of the spelling world. In a five-year span, Amy and two of her younger siblings placed in the top 16 at the national bee in Washington, D.C.
Goldstein credits her success with intense preparation and a little luck, and said the National Spelling Bee is so popular because the competition is fierce and the reactions of contestants while they’re spelling are wildly unpredictable. Plus, the kids are cute and a little nerdy – which people relate to.
“It’s one of the most fun nights of the year to work here. It’s almost like a party,” said Goldstein, who never misses watching the finals, participates in adult bees for fun, and has remained close friends with many of the contestants she competed against. In fact, while we were talking, Goldstein jumped on the Facebook page she created for her fellow Scripps finalists and found out one of them had become a new mom (the child probably hit the genetic spelling jackpot and will be competing in the national bee by 2024).
Also, I doubt you’ll find any trivia contest movies nominated for an Academy Award. But “Spellbound,” a documentary that follows eight competitors in the 1999 Scripps National Spelling Bee, was. The film also won an Emmy and in 2007 it was voted one of the top five documentaries of all time by the Independent Documentary Association.
It’s hard to watch “Spellbound” and not like Ashley White, the determined, ambitious 13-year-old girl from inner-city Washington, D.C., who wanted to be an obstetrician. It turns out White’s life after the spelling bee could be a movie too: She became a mom at 17, lived with relatives and friends, and worked as a sales clerk until viewers who saw “Spellbound” found out and helped her get back on her feet. They paid for her college application and contributed to a charitable foundation to help her pay for her education. White earned her undergraduate degree from Howard University (at one point, she took 18 credits while she lived in a homeless shelter and worked) and, in 2012, a master’s degree in social work. Today, she’s a social worker for the Washington, D.C., Department of Human Services.
In a telephone conversation, White said she doesn’t follow the national bee. “I’ve got my hands full,” she said.
When the Scripture-reading White got knocked out of the spelling bee in the third round on the word “ecclesiastical,” she felt like a failure. But when her sister made her sit through “Spellbound” this past December, White saw the confident, hard-working girl who audiences fell in love with.
“What I thought was a failure was, in fact, my proudest moment. It showed me a lot about myself,” she said. “I’m a stickler for activating your faith, achieving your goals, being persistent, not giving up. Everybody is born with a purpose. It’s up to you to find out your purpose.”
There’s a similar life lesson in another great spelling bee movie, “A Boy Named Charlie Brown,” where Charlie Brown spells his way to the national bee, only to be eliminated when he misspells “beagle.”
Linus tells Charlie Brown that he understands how badly his friend feels, then asks, “Did you notice something? The world didn’t come to an end.”
My new purpose is to convince the Chartiers-Houston Library to reschedule the spelling bee. I’d form a team called the Word Nerds and we’d all wear matching T-shirts and, if we’re lucky enough to win the “Best of the Hive” trophy, we’d wave our arms like Rocky did after he reached the top of the steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Afterward, pizza, my treat.