Friday, May 4, 2012

Spelling Bee Confession

"Summer," Jacques-Joseph Tissot

A writer is sometimes called upon to write nearly anything. What is it like to be the Caller for a spelling bee? What is it like to write the word list? And strangest of all- what is it like to have the power to make or break a winner? This is where I failed- I'm here to confess: I threw the Texas Regional Senior Citizens Spelling Bee.

I was asked to write the list and be the Caller, and my list was then used for the State Spelling Bee. To make a list I consulted a few spelling bee lists. I added some words on my own from a thesaurus, as the dictionary is complicated by word particles, botany terms and foreign words for mud hut.

There is a certain type of word that just "looks" like a Bee word. Once you've seen such a list, you can recognize them anywhere. They tend to have doubled letters like 'perigee,' unexpected vowels like 'camouflage,' surprise letters like 'c' in 'reminiscence'- and a certain weight to them, an independent, well-rounded feel. Take for example the difference between 'splendor' and 'splendid': which is the Bee word? I bet you can tell.

all the rage in Paris
but not in Texas

I ended up with many pages of tricky words: a few pages of easy, a few of intermediate, and a few of difficult which I labeled "tie-breakers." But on reflection, I realized that I couldn't use the hard words. This was my theory: This was not a competitive nationwide Bee. I realized that the goal of a Senior Citizen spelling bee is not just to see who is the best speller, it also had to be fun, for both contestants and audience. It's not fun to watch spellers dropping out like flies.

In that case, there would need to be a few rounds of fairly easy words so the fallout rate would be slow and give everyone some kind of a chance. The audience is strung along and the tension increases, but slowly. Only gradually would harder words be introduced- but never too hard. Words that a very good speller would get. At every level, words they and the audience knew. Never "surtout," "reliquary" or "rubefacient."

And so I did this. I began with several rounds of:
splendor (see, you knew!)

gathering of the 'Society Dilettante'
London c 1780s, Sir Joshua Reynolds
Eventually I moved to these:

Once it was clear who was really good, it could be ratcheted up a notch- not too much, just what would distinguish a good speller from an excellent one:

I decided against controversy like:
Matisse, "Dance"

When I arrived at the Bee, I saw the seniors sitting in bridge chairs and murmuring excitedly. I was announced by the Activities Director of the Senior Center, then I took the microphone. I began the list, calling the words like an actress, to make it more exciting.

It went as I'd planned, slowly for awhile, so we'd have fun, then a little faster, until finally the race was down to two people. The man was large, expansive, a Texas "good old boy." He wore a light-blue summer suit jacket and his shirt strained at his stomach. He was someone quite distant from my experience or who I felt comfortable with. The woman, however, was a spry, delicate, chatty black woman, very classy and personable. I wished with all my heart for her to win.

Idyllwilde Arts Academy, Missouri

I looked at my list. Whatever it said was going to determine the winner. First, his word. I felt hopeful, it was ''naivete": maybe a bit too easy, but still a chance he might fail. I saw the word after that- HER word- and my heart sank. It was "baccalaureate." She'd never make it.


To my relief the man missed his word. He'd gotten his 'i's' and 'e's' mixed up. But he was not yet out, as the little woman hadn't gotten her word. Once again I looked at her word, and happened to notice the word after that was "savvy." How much simpler it was! How did it even get onto my "difficult" list?

I hesitated a split second to check my moral judgement. A perceptive person might have detected that slight hesitation. Should I? Should I? It was only one word away. . . it could have come out that way otherwise . . .

"Savvy," I said.
Yes, I did.

The little lady came to me afterwards and squinted up at me. "Really!" she exclaimed, irritated, I realized. She shook her head. "Savvy?! Come on!" I don't know how she knew, but she did. She felt cheated out of her glory, on such an easy word- denied the chance to show what she could do, win fair and square on her own merit.

And so the little lady went on the the State Bee, which was held in the same place. They made their list from my complete list of words, but they brought in their own Caller. For another thing, there were two readers, each following a copy of the list, to make sure nobody jumped a word. The Caller spoke in a flat monotone. The folks complained later that my calling was much more entertaining.

I am admitting it only now: I threw the Texas Regional Senior Citizens Spelling Bee.