Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Great Black Hope (of spelling)

I came to the Midwest this week to spend some time with my nephew and his family, and to cheer on my great-nephew, Chris, in a countywide spelling bee.

Having won his junior high school bee, Chris was on the glory road. After this, a regional bee. After that, the statewide bee. And then – yes, baby! – the Scripps National Spelling Bee on live television.

Chris, a 12-year-old seventh grader, impresses the hell out of me. He’s been watching the national bees on TV for years. I took him to see the documentary “Spellbound” in 2003, and I bought him the DVD when it came out.

I love that he’s into language. And I've been waiting for him to step up and compete in a bee.

Shorty was ready, too. Over the weekend, I challenged him to a duel, using words from his study guide. To make things interesting, I put $20 on the line. First one to spell 10 words correctly wins.

I really pride myself on my vocabulary. When I was much younger than Chris, I was reading the dictionary for fun.

But the kid waxed me. He can spell fricassee; he can spell denouement; he can spell schussboomer; he can spell plenipotentiary. Plus a whole bunch of words I never heard of before and can’t remember now.

By the time I got 10 of them right, Chris was up to, like, 40.

For our rematch, I asked for a handicap. Chris would have to spell words from the “advanced” list, while I’d get words from the “intermediate” list. I pulled out another $20.

He beat me in a squeaker, 10 to 9.

So I was feeling confident in Chris when we rolled into that theater seven deep. There were 78 kids competing that night, and a surpisingly diverse ethnic mix for the Midwest. Primarily white, of course, but a number of Asians, at least one Latina, at least one Muslim (judging by an audience member’s headscarf), and at least one other black kid besides Chris.

My great-nephew was relaxed, not stressing at all.

The competition began with what I’d call easy words, like keelhaul and chinchilla. Nothing like the killers Chris and I had practiced with.

Yet kids were falling like flies. One misspelled wanderlust; another added a second S to adios. A black girl – an immigrant, judging by her mom’s foreign accent – was utterly unfamiliar with the word paddock; she asked the reader (a female news anchor) to define it and use it in a sentence. Still, the girl missed badly with her guess: P-A-D-D-A.

As you know, one wrong letter and it’s all over.

When Chris stepped to the microphone, the reader gave him his word: mohair. Chris was unfamiliar with it. He asked for the definition. He asked the reader to use it in a sentence.

Then he took his best guess:


Crap. It was all over.

Chris took it like a man. But it was a sad silence in the SUV as we rode to Cold Stone Creamery to apply ice cream to our wounds.

Eventually, Chris got to cracking jokes. “It’s racist,” he said, unable to keep a straight face. He said the reader didn’t pronounce the C-K in paddock, that’s why the black girl got bounced. “When I missed,” Chris went on, “she probably said, ‘My plan is succeeding!’ ”

We all cracked up laughing. But Chris’s mom said, “Don’t talk that way. We don’t have any victims in this family.”

But Chris was on a roll. “There’s never been a black spelling-bee champion. It’s racist!”

Someone around the table mentioned Akeelah from “Akeelah and the Bee.” Chris didn’t miss a beat: “That’s a movie. That’s a fairy tale!”

Chris laughed, everybody laughed.

Then his mom said, “There’s always next year.”

But there won’t be a next year, according to Chris. His days of competitive spelling are over. He said he only did it this time because his mother urged him to.

“I don’t want you to quit,” his mom said.

“It’s not quitting if I didn’t want to do it in the first place,” Chris said. He wasn’t joking. Chris would rather excel at sports.

Heavy sigh.

I’m sorry, the world doesn’t need more black athletes. But we sure as hell could use a black spelling-bee champ.

UPDATE (02/24/07): Many thanks to “Kwiana,” who posted a comment last night informing me that there has been a black spelling-bee champ. Her name is Jody-Anne Maxwell, she’s from Kingston, Jamaica, and she now attends the University of the West Indies. Her winning word was chiaroscurist.


SJ said...

Just so you know, sikh males are the ones who usually wear a 'headwrap', unless the person was a female Muslim, who wear a 'hijab'.

I'm not familiar with these competitions so I was wondering, did your nephew learn just the word spellings or their meanings too? Because I think there's no point to just memorizing the spelling.

Undercover Black Man said...

SJ: I should've written "headscarf"... I'll go in and change that.

Yeah, oddly enough, it's just about the spelling. Like, what's the use of knowing how to spell "denouement" if you don't know what a denouement is (which Chris didn't). So it's basically about rote memorization of spellings.

It's fun, though, to see the good spelling-bee kids figure out the spellings of words they don't know through their knowledge of Greek or French or German roots, etc.

Anonymous said...

I say good for him. I didn't make it out of the school during my spelling bee ("'awkward'. . . A-C-K-W-A-R-D. . ."). But we need not give up hope, I know for a FACT that a black kid won the Geography Bee some years back.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, but can he spell "articulate"? I'm kidding! :-)

Just make sure you warn your nephew that good spelling is the gateway to a love of language, reading, and writing. At least, that's what happened to me and look how I turned out!

Anonymous said...

Well you can give him some encouragement because in 1998 a black girl won the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Her name is Jody-Ann Maxwell and she hails from Kingston,Jamaica. The winning word chiaroscurist.

Undercover Black Man said...

Kwiana, thank you so much for telling me something I didn't know! I wish I could've seen that '98 competition on TV.

There's a cute little animated film on YouTube paying tribute to young Miss Maxwell, who is now studying law at the University of the West Indies.

justjudith said...

excellent post. sorry he didn't advance farther but there are few things that cold stone can't heal!

Anonymous said...

It sounds like someone gave your nephew bad advice on what to study. Regional Bees this year all start with words from the 2007 Spell-It! and mohair is in there. It sounds like he was studying last year's Paideia instead of this year's Spell-It!