Spell-check this, sports fans

June 02, 1999|By Barbara Brotman

RESERVE the Barcalounger and pour me a tall, frosty mug of 1 percent milk. It's time for my kind of spectator sport -- the 1999 Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee, which will be held today and tomorrow in Washington.

Words are, ironically, almost insufficient to describe my love of spelling bees. In a sports-obsessed world, they are a non-athlete's sweet delight.

They are pinnacles of studious achievement, showcases of familiarity with Latin roots, rare public rewards for people given to reading the dictionary for fun.

And the world series of spelling bees is the Scripps Howard.

How's this for the ultimate nod from a sports-idolizing culture? The National Spelling Bee is broadcast live on ESPN this year, muscling out baseball and soccer with competitive spelling.

It is a sports-resenter's dream. Imagine stunned denizens of sports bars blinking in the beery dark while students calmly finesse "antipyretic" and "staphylococci" like so many routine pop flies.

The National Spelling Bee has all the drama of a sport, only instead of actual sport, there are words.

Every moment is tense. Will this speller get the tough ones, only to flub a simpler word? Does that one have a nervous habit of tossing her head before every word, like former Cub Bobby Dernier unfastening and then refastening his batting gloves after every pitch?

Nothing beats the nerve-racking last round, when two smart kids turn into the equivalent of batters down to their last strikes with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth.

And afterward, the champions give interviews that bear a remarkable resemblance to the locker-room variety. The 1997 winner, 13-year-old Rebecca Sealfon, discussed her spelling strategy. After winning the 1998 bee, 12-year-old Jody-Anne Maxwell thanked God.

Finally, consider the sports-like sight of the excitable Rebecca when she was given the word "euonym," and realized that she was about to nail the championship. She shouted each letter triumphantly into the microphone, then yelled, "Yeah!" and raised her arms in victory.

It is a beautiful thing to see academic achievement honored as highly as athletic ability. A well-spelled word can be as thrilling as a well-hit ball, and in its rarity on the public stage, maybe more so.

Besides, spelling is more than a spectator sport. Decades after enjoying some minor spelling bee success in elementary school, I competed in an adult bee that our local PTO included in this year's children's bee, presumably for comic relief.

Suffice it to say that I will never again misspell "diaphanous." But I went out and spelled my best game.

Barbara Brotman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

Pub Date: 6/02/99

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