Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The Final Word (from me) on the 2006 Scripps National Spelling Bee

I finally watched the finals of the Bee. I think the moment has passed to do a more formal write-up (besides, I’m working on one on the men’s World Cup). Here are my strongest reactions, however:

¶ First, I have to apologize for getting Katharine Close’s nickname wrong: it is Kerry, not Kasey. You could call it a misspelling; it was just plain wrong. My apologies to the champ: es tut mir leid.

¶ If you read my posts from earlier that day, it was not hard to extend my initial observations to what stood out in the evening program. First, the cloying introduction that showed spellers standing on the Capitol steps made a further mockery of the national disconnect between English spelling bees and US education policy. Next, the sports metaphors continued to worsen . . . and then subside, interestingly, once three girls were remaining in the competition. Besides interminable commercial breaks, the only production change that signaled the Bee’s appearance in prime time was the replacement of SportsCenter’s hard-working Chris McKendry with the patronizing morning show anchor (and erstwhile sports broadcaster) Robin Roberts.

¶ Indeed, and perhaps this is the eternal student in me, but the program needs a real commentator to call the actual spelling itself. Think about it: if you watch a high-level sports competition, you are usually offered insights into the players' considerations (e.g., “why is the catcher signaling a fast ball for this batter instead of a curve?”). Instead, in this program, the commentators allowed the long silences while the spellers deliberated, and (former finalist) Paul Loeffler would wait until the contestant spelled the assigned word before he rapidly glossed the competitor's available choices – at which point, of course, the program had to move briskly on to the next competitor.

An example of what might be more interesting: when contestant Matthew Giese asked the etymology for the word “mithraeum,” and learned that the word was derived from Persion to Greek to Latin – and also that the word related to the Persian deity Mithras -- I knew that he was deciding whether the beginning of the word was “mith” or “myth” – a natural consideration, once you hear the word is related to mythology (and he followed up on that) -- and, more important, whether the end of the word should be “aeum” (a Greek ending) or “ium” (a Latin one, carried on through French). If viewers had been shared that during Matthew's hemming and hawwing, they would have been more invested when he ended up spelling the word “mithrium.” Get these commentators a real booth (so they won’t be heard), and make the expert on spelling earn his or her keep. For the kinds of folks who tune in to spelling bees, it would make the competition far more illuminating.

¶ Had I been able to watch the Bee that night, I would have pinned my hopes on Finola Hackett – I still will! (“O Canada, I stand on guard for thee. . .”). Beside the fact that she’s Canadian – and utterly adorable – she spelled “dasyphyllous” (“having leaves thickly or thickly set”) and “poiesis” (“a work of creativity”) -- and her middle name, “Mae Hwa,” means “beautiful flower”! La Jardiniere has got to love her. Consider a degree in English at Queen’s University, Finola . . . I’ll be the one teaching Renaissance poetry: so many garden poems, and so much to tell you about the history of English spelling. (It was during the English Renaissance that humanists first tried to standardize spelling in our language.)

¶ Perhaps my strongest reaction to the program was to the barbaric decision to have the contestants who misspelled join, and remain with, their parents ONSTAGE for the duration of the competition – WITHOUT A CHAIR. What were the producers thinking? As a viewer of the program, I gained nothing from the choice to place the parents onstage instead of filming them from the audience: there were no better camera angles, and no additional meaningful information imparted. Rather, as a parent – hell, any viewer with a modicum of empathy – I felt that making an on-going spectacle of the children’s defeat contradicted the program’s alleged message that all of these hardworking kids are winners. It was heart-wrenching to see these boys and girls reunite with their parents –– after months and years of preparation, after a long, hard, stressful day, and well past many of their bed-times – and feel too embarrassed to break down to cry because they were ON CAMERA. But even worse, having not been supplied their own chairs, the children could not sit down -- collapse! -- except on the floor: how utterly and preposterously demeaning. For shame, Scripps and ABC, for shame. Please tell me that this was some flunky PA’s outrageous and irremediable error.

The way my mind works, of course – which is to say, if I were to write a more formal piece on this year's contest – I would surmise that such an unexpected (and unwarranted) public humiliation corresponds to the punishing unpredictability of English spelling itself, as well as to the the heartlessness of the spelling bee tournament, which ends up penalizing scholastic effort more than it rewards it.

I’ll be back next year, when I’ll be calling it from Canada. On to the World Cup!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice job summing it up- I wholeheartedly agree that there needed to be better play-by-play. For instance when the contestant who misspelled weltschmerz was ruminating over whether it would start with a w or v, the commentators should have been saying how this word should be a softball for her given that her father is German. It's not quite ready for primetime. Sleeper