While flipping channels, I chanced upon the final 10 contestants of the Scripps National Spelling Bee last Thursday night. It was airing live on ESPN. Does ESPN recognize intellectual gymnastics as a sport now?
I watched each young finalist stand alone before a microphone and a huge audience, receive a word most of us have never read let alone heard spoken, and then proceed to spell that word correctly more times than not.
Maybe it's the pregnancy hormones, but after one round of this I was nearly emotional. These kids were brilliant! They knew an endless number of root words in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. They spelled words with origins in German, French and Fijian. They spelled words like "bayadere," "caudillismo" and "hippocrene" in less than 2 minutes! HOW?!
Do they sleep with dictionaries under their pillows? Are their parents master hypnotists that lull these words into their heads? I'm still divining the magic formula of how to create a genius kid like this. Not that I'm gunning for my daughter to be a National Spelling Bee champion one day or anything ahem.
As contestant after contestant tackled the most foreign words to my ears -- and believe me, I tried to spell each of them and always failed miserably -- I found myself less curious about how they were doing it and more awestruck that they were doing it at all. These are kids! And as far as I could tell watching the program, they really are kids. They love Lebron James, Serena Williams, Indiana Jones films, karate classes and PB&Js. They have kid sisters and brothers. They are dealing with all the fun and frustration of being that age, yet somehow growing their brains at a breakneck speed at the same time. That in and of itself is astounding, let alone their achievements in the competition.
But I think I was most impressed by how well nearly each finalist took the news of his or her first and only incorrectly spelled word. They were not just showing how well they'd learned to spell, but also how well they'd learned to accept defeat. One lovable contestant, Dev Jaiswal, 13, from Louisville, Mo., finished in fifth place after misspelling the word "iridocyclitis." After getting the failing bell, Dev immediately said with a genuine smile, "Thank you so much everyone." He stood and proudly received a roaring standing ovation, then walked offstage to greet his mother and sister with big hugs and kisses.
How, by God, does one raise a 13-year-old boy that doesn't even have to recover from such a high-stakes error, but rather goes straight from hope to gratitude? These kids are undeniably amazing. The final two contestants, Vanya Shivashankar and Gokul Venkatachalam, both won in a tie after all of the final words were spelled correctly. They knocked it out of the park with their skill and decorum. We could all learn something from that level of dedication, maturity, and sportsmanship.
Natalia Naman Temesgen is an independent contractor. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org