P-R-E-S-S-U-R-E: The High-Stakes Culture of Spelling Bees

I’m sure you’ve seen them. Those really nerdy little kids, standing nervously up on stage, clinging onto those cardboard placards emblazoned with numbers and names as if each one holds the entire dictionary in its centimeter-thick cardboard depths. You’ve watched their bulging eyes on ESPN, seen their ears prick up at attention, looked on in amusement as their mouths go agape when they hear the word that the pronouncer says.

Yes, the Scripps National Spelling Bee is a spectacle to behold, and its unique juxtaposition of tiny, scrawny kids (probably because they’ve been skipping meals to study Germanic root words) and tremendously sesquipedalian words has held the American public in fascination year after year since 1925. I was one of those kids once–actually, three times–and let me tell you, for a 12-year-old from rural Upstate New York, it was the most memorable experience of my childhood. The opportunity to travel to Washington, DC and compete with the brightest kids from all over the English-speaking world was quite a treat, or so I thought.

When I qualified for the Bee for the first time, my sixth-grade teacher bought for me a colorful, fun book full of spelling tips and tricks to study from. My parents were less creative; they sat me down in front of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, and told me to start reading.

Spelling talent often runs in families, and I’ve seen several pairs of siblings compete in the Bee in successive years. But my three older sisters never showed any particular talent in spelling, so at the time, my parents were expecting me to be a brilliant kid prodigy. Even then, they were thrilled, planning my acceptance to Harvard, my perfect MCAT score, and my career as a surgeon.

12-year-old me had no idea what they were talking about; I was too busy taking notes on the Anglicization of borrowed Japanese words. A theme, I realized, would soon develop: kids qualify for the Bee and try their best, but their parents are the ones who desperately want to win. When we actually headed off to DC for the competition, I realized that all the competitors were actually very friendly with each other—the parents, on the other hand, quickly developed rivalries.

Imagine the shenanigans that should have ensued with 300 tweens all staying in one big, fancy hotel in the middle of DC for a week. Now lock each of them up in their respective hotel rooms with a dictionary and an eyesore of a polo shirt emblazoned with the Spelling Bee logo. It’s a shame for 300 kids to all compete against each other and not befriend one another or have the fun that they ought to; the culture of the Bee generates demanding competition and rivalry. I didn’t know it then, but the Spelling Bee has a habit of bringing out the worst in parents.

Crying kids are a common sight at the Bee. There's even a
Crying kids are a common sight at the Bee. There’s even a “Comfort Room” just offstage that provides competitors who have just been eliminated with a space in which to cry and vent their emotions.

Anyone who’s watched Akeelah and the Bee knows all about the competitive atmosphere that pervades the competition; every year, there are plenty of kids who fit the “Dylan” mold. These are the kids whose parents follow the philosophy of “second place in the Bee makes you second place in life.” In the film, Dylan’s father pushed him to succeed to an unhealthy extent, demanding nothing less than a championship from his son. This mirrors a common sentiment from parents of spellers—high expectations are the name of the game.

For the record, I never won the Bee. I never placed second. My best finish was in 2009, when I placed seventeenth by misspelling “myriacanthous” (there’s a red squiggle under that word as I type it, and it still terrifies me). My parents were OK with my performance. I consider myself one of the lucky ones.

Now, I don’t mean this as an excoriation of Bee culture or the concept of a Spelling Bee itself, but I do believe that the Scripps National Spelling Bee is a dangerous game. The stakes get higher each year: cash and scholarship prizes exceed $60,000, ESPN and ABC televise these kids nationally, and each year, the winner makes the late-night talk show circuit (Jimmy Kimmel, most memorably, traditionally competes in a mock two-competitor spelling bee against the champion). All that stress and pressure is a lot for these little kids to take on, especially considering that an eight-year-old recently became the youngest Bee participant in history. I’m no juvenile psychologist, but I’m glad the national craze over spelling bees has diminished somewhat. Had the mid-2000s craze over Bees continued to grow, kids today would be under tremendous amounts of stress. The Bee moved to a smaller, more low-key location outside of the city of DC since 2011. It’s been several years since films like Akeelah and Spellbound encapsulated the popular frenzy over the Bee. It’s time we let kids be kids.

At my high school graduation, I met a consultant who works with my dad; she told me that, though he was bouncing with excitement during my first Bee, his charisma dwindled when each year passed, and still the mantle in our living room sat without an oversized, golden trophy. Maybe my dad understood. Sure, the kids who win the National Spelling Bee go on to a fair deal of attention and (probably) elite educational institutions, but for the other nearly 300 kids, the whole affair is an exercise in high-stakes, high-pressure disappointment. Moreover, even for the winners, that attention is incredibly short-lived. Their names are on people’s lips for a few days, but they’re quickly forgotten and replaced with stereotypes of spellers: the nerdy Indian kid, the girl with braces, the socially awkward homeschooler . ESPN, which broadcasts the Bee each year, consistently plays up these archetypes in its depiction of the competitors.

This is all to say nothing of the protesters who have picketed the Bee in recent years, demanding simplified spelling and denouncing the Bee as a glorification of the complexity of language, which stands a barrier to universal literacy. The American Literacy Council and the London-based Spelling Society have made several trips to DC to spread their philosophy of simple, phonetic spelling; the Spelling Bee rewards smart kids, sure, but are those less fortunate suffering so that a couple hundred highly motivated kids can feel proud of themselves?

Do I remember the Bee fondly? Sure. Do I think there’s room for child spelling competitions in today’s society? Absolutely. And furthermore, I think it’s fantastic that intelligent, motivated kids across the world have the opportunity to converge in a celebration of their hard work and dedication. But let’s make sure that no one has to be a Dylan anymore, and let kids be kids without pressuring them through cutthroat academic competition.