05.28.09

P-R-E-S-S-U-R-E

Lights! Cameras! Fainting 13-year-olds! Millions will watch tonight’s National Spelling Bee finals but, asks Word Freak author Stefan Fatsis, is this entertainment, education—or exploitation? PLUS: Video clips of the most bizarre Bee moments.

Lights! Cameras! Fainting 13-year-olds! Millions will watch tonight’s National Spelling Bee finals but, asks Word Freak author Stefan Fatsis, is this entertainment, education—or exploitation? PLUS: Watch video clips of the most bizarre Bee moments.

Millions of Americans will tune to ABC tonight to witness the coronation of a new National Spelling Bee champion. The attraction is undeniable. We’re biologically drawn to children doing the extraordinary because 1) they’re not supposed to and 2) they look so darn cute doing it. When those kids are performing feats of linguistic jujitsu that would amaze Steven Pinker, so much the better.

But watching the Bee should be a guilty pleasure. The obvious complaint is that it’s irresponsible to make children do lexicographic party tricks on live, prime-time, broadcast television. And it probably is, in the same way that airing the Little League World Series can also be hazardous to children’s health. “Adolescent sports aren’t meant to be entertainment for adults,” Boston sports psychologist Richard Ginsburg says in my friend Mark Hyman’s new book, Until It Hurts, about America’s unhealthy obsession with youth sports.

Kids stammer, tug at their hair and display preadolescent tics that are hard enough to manage in front of malicious middle-school classmates let alone a nation of living-room critics, sportswriters, and live bloggers.

Nowhere is that performance more naked than at the Bee in Washington, D.C. The 293 competitors have to stand on a stage in the ballroom of a fancy hotel, in front of a large audience, at a microphone, before a table of adult judges, with television cameras rolling and reporters recording their screw-ups. All face the possibility of national airtime. Wednesday’s preliminary rounds were streamed on ESPN360.com and this morning’s semifinal rounds went live on ESPN starting at 10 a.m. Eastern.

Kids stammer, tug at their hair, and display preadolescent tics that are hard enough to manage in front of malicious middle-school classmates let alone a nation of living-room critics, sportswriters, and live bloggers. In 2004, a 13-year-old named Akshay Buddiga famously fainted during a turn. The YouTube video is shocking—not because Akshay gets up and spells “alopecoid” correctly but because not a single person rushes to his side. “Stop the clock,” one judge says in an unalarmed, schoolmarmy voice. When Akshay rises, the judge says—without any way of possibly knowing— “He’s all right.” As if.

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Akshay Buddiga faints at the 2004 Bee.

If you’ve seen the documentary Spellbound, you know the lengths to which some kids—and, more to the point, some parents—go to prepare for the Bee. The finalists will have spent hundreds of hours—possibly thousands in the case of veteran spellers—memorizing arcane words. They will have been tested via printed word lists and interactive software. They will have been drilled ceaselessly by demanding moms, dads, teachers and coaches. For the top competitors, the pressure is profound. (As the Bee has evolved, it’s grown more difficult. The winning word in 1981 was “sarcophagus.” Not to brag, but my first-grade daughter can spell that.)

Is there a purpose? Learning about language is, obviously, a good thing. The top spellers leave their Bee with a linguist’s understanding of Greek and Latin and grammar and etymology and, one hopes, an appreciation for the breadth and beauty of the English language. They learn about focus and preparation and competition and about the arbitrary nature of life—because maybe you get to spell a word you know and maybe you don’t. And they score tons of free stuff, hang out with like-minded obsessives and maybe make ESPN’s Top 10 plays of the day. Totally awesome.

So I like the idea of the Bee. But as with most activities into which our culture pushes and celebrates children, the question to ask is whether the recently pumped-up version is healthy. Blowing that last word is temporarily crushing under any circumstance. It’s exponentially more so when $40,000 in cash, scholarships and prizes are on the line, and when 14 million people are watching on live television at 10 o'clock at night, as they were in the closing moments of the 2006 event. When it comes to short- and long-term emotional scarring, your mileage may vary, and kids might not be as resilient as they seem. “A child that age can’t differentiate their performance from who they are as a person,” Ginsburg says in Until It Hurts.

I’m not a Bee veteran myself, but I have some experience in the field of bright kids playing word games. Two years ago, I started a Scrabble club at my daughter’s public elementary school in Washington, D.C., and I’ve coached players in the National School Scrabble Championship, which like the Bee consists primarily of fifth- through eighth-graders. I also wrote the script and was the color commentator for ESPN’s coverage of the event in 2007 and 2008. Which arguably makes me complicit in the media exploitation of children, because a TV camera is a TV camera and ESPN is ESPN.

But while I’m biased by my own love of the board game, I think there’s a qualitative difference between the Bee and the Scrabble tournament. In both, the best players memorize lots of weird words (though in Scrabble the words are, in aggregate, shorter, two to eight letters).  Vocabulary and grammar and etymology are worthy byproducts. The top  competitors are serious and passionate,  usually have a blast, and often show way more perspective than their  adult minders.

And yet I’m completely comfortable promoting kids' Scrabble but feel a little uncomfortable watching the Bee. Why? Because of what the kids do and how they are asked to do it. The Bee is about the individual. One kid, a very bright spotlight and a bell that dings (aw) or doesn’t (yay). The verdict is instant and, therefore, exhilarating or devastating. No middle ground. In school Scrabble, players compete in teams of two, to minimize pressure and encourage teamwork. That’s a healthy distraction, even in a championship final to be shown (months later) on national television. One player can’t drop a fly ball or strike out or misspell a word. And Scrabble engages not only words but a range of math skills—strategy, spatial relations, board geometry. The Bee is rather more limited.

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Rebecca Sealfon spells her way to victory at the 1997 Bee.

Of course, the Bee is a prime-time extravaganza while ESPN canceled its Scrabble coverage this year—partly because it didn’t turn into another Bee. No surprise there. The use of obscure words in Scrabble—about 100,000 in The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary—is hard for non-players to understand. The use of obscure words in the Bee—about 476,000 in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, the great American unabridged dictionary—is the whole point.

The skills, by the way, don’t necessarily translate. The 2006 Bee winner, a poised 13-year-old from New Jersey named Kerry Close, was asked by CBS’s predictably condescending Harry Smith (is there an anchorperson alive who can speak comfortably to children?) whether she plays Scrabble. “Yeah,” she replied, “but I’m not very good at it.”

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Sameer Mishra mishears the word “numnah” to hilarious results in the 2008 Bee.

I love the fact that, for a couple of days a year, America chooses to watch smart kids using their brains. But the Bee was challenging and cool and pleasantly strange – like an episode of the old College Bowl or the fictitious radio show It’s a Wise Child on which J.D. Salinger’s precocious Glass children all appeared—long before ESPN came aboard in 1994 and ABC took it mainstream in 2006. The words may have gotten harder in the Bee, but when you try to appeal to the masses, the cultural approach can only get softer.

The mostly serious former sportscaster Robin Roberts hosted the Bee finals in 2006 and 2007; average viewership was 8.5 million and 7.1 million, respectively. Last year, the network switched toTom Bergeron of  Dancing With the Stars and  America’s Funniest Home Videos and moved the finals to Friday night from Thursday. Viewership plunged to 4.9 million.

Now ABC has returned the Bee to a school night. It’s also created a flashy promotional video. It pokes fun at the kid who fainted.

Stefan Fatsis is the author of Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players and A Few Seconds of Panic: A Sportswriter Plays in the NFL, out in paperback this summer. He talks about sports on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” writes a column for Sports Illustrated.com and contributes to The New York Times, The Atlantic, Slate and other publications.