Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Do the chickens have large talons?


Internets, Gleemonex’s favorite annual television event is on today and tomorrow. I’m talking, of course, of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, broadcasting live (no kidding, on actual TV channels) from our nation’s capital.

Now, I always do develop a few favorites among the kids, but I’m gonna be stone cold rooting for my homeboy, #247, Samir Patel, representing the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, now in his fifth year at the national Bee and a favorite to win — and I hate to spoil it for any of y’all TiVo-ing it (because I know you are legion — LEGION!), but it does look like homeslice made it through today. GIVE ‘EM HELL, PATEL!

The thing is, watching the bee is pure AGONY for me — I was there once, you see. And while it's kind of fun to spell along, test yourself to see if you still got it, it's impossible not to feel the pain — those poor kids, man.

So -- the year was 1988, back when it was still the Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee. I was 14, in 8th grade (and my last year of eligibility), when I finally made it to the nationals after two years of crapping out at the regional level (“pennigrade,” 1986, never heard of it; a word I knew but spelled too fast and left a letter out of, 1987). I represented the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, thus my allegiance to my young Indian homie — bro’s before ho’s, Samir old buddy.

And this was way before the NSB had any kind of cool at all. I mean, for reals — it’s still as incredibly nerdy as it always was, but today there are all these books and movies and documentaries and whatnot, and people train and study for it in earnest from like, age five, and it’s on frickin ESPN and ABC, and the winner gets $35,000 and a bunch of other prizes and gets to go on goddamned Letterman and shit — in my day, we were all just a passel of book-readin’ nerdlets who sorta stumbled into the gig, and the top prize was $1,500 and a set of Encyclopedia Britannica (really).

So the pressure is on for these poor kids, and I’m telling you, even back in the Jurassic when I was doin’ the bee, the atmosphere was fucking KILLER. I cannot describe the tension of being up on that stage, a cardboard number slung around your neck, dressed in your Sunday best, out of your mind with stomach-churning, bug-eyed fear (fear which, because you are about 13 or 14, you must conceal from your peers if it is the last thing you do on earth). You’ve spent several days touring DC on the newspaper’s dime, getting to know your fellow spellers, some of whom will be friends for life (hi, Scott Isaacs, 1989 champ! Hey there, Aparajita Nandi! How y’all?), and now you’re sitting on stage, beaming laser beams of failure at their backs as hard as you can, because the only way you can win is if they fuck up. And you know damn well they’re doing it to you, too. (“Schadenfreude” really is everyone’s favorite word at the bee.) The audience is composed entirely of parents and loved ones — it’s not a public event — and the weight of that collective parental angst is absolutely suffocating.

So then it’s your turn, after like TEN YEARS of watching everyone else go through it, and you’re up there in front of the mic, and Jacques Bailly gives you your word and you take a second to process — do you know it, or don’t you? If you do, you go ahead and ask to hear it again, maybe a definition or a sentence, just to be sure. Nothing worse than a verbal typo, misspelling a word you know. Close your eyes, see it in your head. And you spell the motherfucker. Slowly.

If you don’t, you stand there a second, heart dropping into your shoes, and ask for it again. You ask the other things you’re allowed to ask: definition (might help), word origin (can help if you read a lot or know anything of other languages), alternate pronunciations (no help), use it in a sentence (almost never any help at all). You say it, eyes locked to Bailly’s face, or to Mary’s (she seems kind, doesn’t she?), to be sure you’re hearing them right. Finally, you just have to take your best guess. Close your eyes, see it in your head. Spell the motherfucker. Slowly.

There may be a time in a kid’s life where 1.5 seconds seems longer than this particular 1.5 seconds, the eternal 1.5 seconds while the judges wait to be sure you’re done with the last letter you’re going to say, but I’ll be damned if I know what it would be. There’s absolute stillness and then — either nods and clapping, or a terrible, dreadful yet objectively innocuous “ding” from that fucking bell. And there may be a longer walk than the walk off the stage after that ding, but I’ll be damned if I know what that would be, either.

Good luck and godspeed, kids. Do your best, try not to make it your whole life, and remember to put it on your resume henceforward. It’ll always get you noticed, and you’ll always have this: You heard the ding, and you lived to tell about it. On your blog. Nineteen years later. Which is not sad, at all.

Love,
Gleemonex
Speller #87
Placed 99th of 200, mowed down by the word “fanchonette” in the 5th round (that round was like the Battle of the Somme, yo)

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5 Comments:

Blogger HHL said...

*nods and clapping*!!!

4:33 PM  
Blogger Jory Dayne said...

Wow! 99th! I choked in my fourth grade bee on the word 'enemy.' Seriously -- how lame?! It was totally the pressure (I had just finished reading Jurassic Park, for pete's sake) that second 'e' was a phantom! Was it there, or wasn't it? E-N-M-Y or E-N-E-M-Y, E...N.. OH MY LORD THEY ARE ALL LOOKING AT YOU! And I was out.

SO. Million dollar question: did you sound like a musical robot?

9:44 PM  
Blogger Gleemonex said...

Ach, Jory -- how well we remember the words we went out on! That stuff sticks like tar in your hair.

I flatter myself that I did not sound like a musical robot ... just a two-year-old hick from Hicksylvania, what with the nasal North Texas accent. ;-)

9:19 AM  
Blogger bgirl said...

I have never been in a spelling bee, to a spelling bee, or seen footage of a spelling bee, but in what you just described - I kind of want to vomit, now. I don't know how those kids do it. I crumble.

10:50 AM  
Blogger Samir Patel [starkalicious] said...

"Close your eyes. Spell the motherfucker. Slowly."

THAT is the best line describing a spelling bee I've ever heard.

Scripps should sneak all of this year's kids into the nearest movie theater after the competition so they could watch the Hangover 2. I think it would a) convince them not to party and b) unshelter them. =Þ.

11:10 AM  

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