When I was in fifth grade, I won a spelling bee. I remember it distinctly because I had never won anything before. There were several rounds, and the words seemed hard, however, I only remember two words from the day.
I remember thinking I was out when I misspelled the word “buried,” but none of us could spell it properly, so I got a reprieve. Then, later, I won the bee on a word my classmate misspelled: locomotive. My prize was a handwritten note signed by the fifth-grade teachers and a nice pen for the endeavor, both of which I still have. (Here is where my husband might interject that I am a dork. A sentimental dork, maybe, but a dork nonetheless.)
At no time did I wonder if I would go on to a regional competition, much less the Scripps National Spelling Bee. I had never even heard of it. I was just happy to get to go home and tell my mom that I won. She probably made me cookies to celebrate.
But ever since 1925, there has been a national contest. And the kids who participate can spell words far more difficult than the ones I could spell at that age. (OK, let’s be real, I still can’t spell them!). For example, the first year’s winning word was “gladiolus.”
A recent contest in Kansas City, Mo., illustrated just how talented these kids can be. The Associated Press reported that 25 kids were selected to participate in the 2014 Jackson County Spelling Bee, and many of them managed to go for up to 19 rounds. After that round, only two children were left.
The remaining 11-year-old fifth-grade and 13-year old seventh-grade contestants were well met in the challenge. Forty-seven additional rounds commenced, during which time, the children spelled words like, “Scherzo,” “fantoccini,” “intaglio,” “schadenfreude,” “mahout” and “barukhzy.” I had never even heard of most of those words, let alone spelled them before. (Those kids should just be happy that John Travolta wasn’t there to pronounce the words for them, or the epic contest may have run much shorter.)
So who won? Neither of them. After all of those correctly spelled words, the organizers of the spelling bee ran out of approved words. They even spent their lunch hour sifting through the dictionary for 20 additional words before concluding that they might inadvertently give one child a word was far easier than the others. They instead decided that the correct thing to do was halt the contest for the day.
Now, the two children must face off again Saturday. The winner moves on to the SNSB in Washington, D.C., in May, while the loser must be content with the knowledge that they gave it their all. And also they have to hope that no one finds any schadenfreude from their loss.
Laura Zoeller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.