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What Spelling Bees Taught Me About Life

By Jack Cheng

Spelling Bee 1 Revised No salute

My two children recently competed in city-wide spelling bees. Sitting in the audience, my vocabulary didn’t improve, but I learned a lot about life. Luckily, I took notes in the form of Twitter missives. For example:

Life is not about spelling (even spelling bees are not about spelling):

Realizing the spelling bee is about overcoming fear, not actually about language. Nervous for all of them.


From what I could tell, many of the second graders lost on words they knew how to spell, but they simply lost their nerve and rushed. For many of them, this was their first experience standing on a stage in front of dozens of people in an audience, including “officials” who would be judging their performance.

One kid had COSTUME, and anticipating the M, spelled COMSTUME. Okay, that was my kid. Still proud of her for lasting multiple rounds. In fact, I was proud of her when she got up on stage, sat in the chair, ready to be judged.

Like every parent in the room, I think, I was anxious for every word for every child. When a kid froze on COMB, I thought his head (or bladder) was going to explode. The spelling bee is not a 100 yard dash where we declare a winner at the end and the other runners are forgotten, it’s more like a marathon where we’re just amazed that the participants survived.

In life, as in spelling bees, context matters:

AFRAID takes out 2! Psychologically difficult to spell when shaken with fear.


This one was tough. Those second graders knew how to spell AFRAID, I’m sure of it. But what a word to request! Why not just ask them to spell MISTAKE or EMBARRASSING?

When you’re on stage, flaunt it:

#19 has style. Salutes the audience after spelling the word.


Loved this kid. Great flair. And why not? How often do we get to be the center of attention?

Regional accents are “hahsh” (i.e., context matters, part 2):

First kid to have Boston accent confuses the judges! HARP

Judge: “Could you repeat that?”
Kid: “Aitch Ay Ouah Pee.”

He got that one right but lost later on RECENT (we suspected an R word would be his undoing).

But much worse is when the announcer has a Boston accent, as in the fourth graders’ contest.

GNAW. “Beavers gnaw on bahk” says the Boston accented presenter.
“Nahrish.” Kid corrects her: NOURISH.
MIRROR. “I looked in the mihroh to see myself.”


The kids looked confused. The parents looked at each other. On the one hand, this was going to be hard (or “hahd”). On the other hand, this is how people actually speak in this area (or “arear”). Still, I felt really bad for the girl who spelled out two syllables instead of one:

Boston accent takes one out. TEROUS for TERSE. It’s how she said it!


Everything takes practice. I would have thought that putting words in context was a skill that had been mastered by any high school graduate, but it’s a lot harder than it seems:

COMIC. “I read the comic section in the newspaper.” What? It’s the COMICS section.
Which is the TRAGIC section of the paper? Front page? Red Sox coverage?


Later they had trouble putting PIERCE in context. “Some girls like to have their ears … wait. That’s the past tense.”

In the audience, I had long passed “tense” and was closing in on ANEURYSM.

Don’t underestimate how much luck affects our lives:

A is getting lucky. TOMB – archaeology. LAUNCH – space obsession.


For the first few rounds “A,” my Indiana Jones obsessed, Apollo mission loving, comic book reading son got words he knew. Afterwards, I asked him if he got LEGION from Legion of Superheroes comics. No, he told me, Asterix the Gaul comics.

Perhaps another lesson to be learned here is that reading widely will help you in ways you could not predict.

Meanwhile, his fourth grade buddy got ACNE. Let me get Yiddish on you here: What fourth grader knows from ACNE?

It really is about the effort:

We don’t clap when they spell correctly; we clap for the eliminated.


Of course the kids were disappointed when they made a mistake (they also seemed very relieved to get off stage), but the audience organically realized that we would stay silent after words were spelled properly. Instead, we applauded for the children who made a mistake and had to leave the stage. In an age of over-praise and too-coddled-to-fail, it was refreshing that spelling correctly was expected and not rewarded, and children were given a chance to fail gracefully.

There really are winners:

My wife called the winner three rounds ago! Tiny girl wins after HORIZON takes out 3.


And yes, there are losers. Life, like the spelling bee, is like that. We praise our kids for their effort but we should admire and respect the kids who finished first.

For all my nervous complaints, I had so much appreciation for the judges and announcers who volunteered to give kids this experience. How wonderful to have a competition that rewards reading and composure and has nothing to do with screens or commercial activity.

Well, except for this:

Next kid spelled VERIZON instead of HORIZON. Blame the media!


Jack Cheng directs the Clemente Course in Boston, works on archaeological digs in the Middle East, plays music with the Newton Family Singers, and runs the “Daddy Bank” for his kids. Follow him on Twitter: @jakcheng

Illustration by Christine Juneau

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