When I am King...
I will do away with the Spelling Bee.
Last week, I spent an evening at a Spelling Bee for fourth and fifth graders. I don’t like to admit it, but I was emotionally overcome by a sense of, well, horror.
A Spelling Bee is like a death match with letters. There is no team to win or lose with. There is no score or grade. Instead, play continues until only one child is left. The last one standing in the puddle of tears must by definition be the winner.
A girl steps up to the microphone and the judges say the word, “psychoanalysis.” She can ask for it to be repeated, derived, defined, and used in a sentence. These are all good stalling tactics and you can see their mind whirring around thinking, “I have no idea what that word is.” Meanwhile, I’m in the audience thinking, “Does that 9 year old really need to know that the word is a combination of roots from French and Celtic?” Then the girl spells the word, haltingly, knowing that everyone is watching and listening to every letter. And since everyone in the room is either a competitor or the parent of one, they are all secretly hoping she will fail.
And she does, eventually, because every child except one does. The judges let her get to the end of the word, while everyone else in the room knows that she was dead as soon as she said “P-H”. After she repeats the word at the end, signaling her completion, the judges ring a bell. it’s a small bell, a friendly bell, and it means YOU FAILED. Each child will remember the sound of that little bell for eternity, listening for it in the auditoriums of life waiting for it to ring out and tell them that they have been judged and found wanting. That they are a Bad Speller.
The girl waits politely at the microphone while the judges tell her what she should have said, and all of the parents and other children nod knowingly, “I would have spelled it the right way.” One of the parents served as the failure committee, greeting each losing child with a goodie bag so that the kids can remember losing. She gives the girl her bag, pats her on the back, and sends her, slowly weeping, toward her parents. Then the failure committee mom goes back to the box of shame to get another goodie bag, because there’s another kid stepping up to the mic, and they’ll probably lose, too.
When I am King, there will be no spelling bee. It obviously doesn’t go far enough in training these children that it’s every man for himself in this world. Instead, children will be locked in a hot room with a single juicebox. Then we’ll see who’s got what it takes. But at least in this competition there will be no roomful of people witnessing each child’s unique failure, no goodie bags of shame, no sweet bell of doom. There will just be a prize, a winner, and a roomful of straw-gouged runners-up.