Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Humor Me: Spelling out success

Iwrote this column a couple years ago, but since the National Spelling Bee is back on national TV this week, I decided to repost it:

Humor Me: Spelling out success


Kids always get critized for not knowing much. And during this week of remembering our fallen soldiers, I bet someone asked, "How many American children can even locate Iraq on a map?"

Well, considering a recent survey showed that two-thirds of adults ages 18-24 couldn't find Iraq, I'm going to say not many. Unless an episode of "SpongeBob SquarePants" featured SpongeBob hanging out with Mr. Krabs on a sand dune near Baghdad.

But that's enough talk about the kids who can't find Iraq. Let's take a positive spin and talk about the kids who can spell Iraq — and nidifugous, obmutescence and docosahexaenoic acid.

Those kids take the stage this week at the Scripps National Spelling Bee, which for the first time will be broadcast live in prime time. PRIME TIME! That means kids who make it to the final rounds Thursday will have a national audience as they face spelling challenges such as "succedaneum," "hepatomegaly" and, because the competition is on ABC, "Eva Longoria."

How many people will actually tune in to see the riveting excitement of do-or-die spelling? Hmm ... that's a tough call. But I think the ratings could be as boffo as American Idol if the National Spelling Bee made a few subtle changes.

(The screen is now turning into wavy patterns as we enter fantasy mode)

Welcome to America's Spelling Idol! I'm Ryan Seacrest, America's No. 1 punchline. Now stepping to the microphone is our next contestant, who must spell this word:


SPELLER: May I have the definition, please?

SIMON COWELL: (with totally affected English accent) My gaaaawd ... You're off to a dreadful start. Just begin.


SIMON COWELL: (throwing down a pencil and sighing) That ... was ... hideous. Positively aaaawful. Your ignorance of the letter "E" inflames the bile in my soul like every breath Paula takes.

PAULA ABDUL: (brushing back her hair to show a dazed look on her face): This might not have been your best performance, but you've got a great style, and I liked the way you started with the letter A. I vote "yes."

RANDY JACKSON: (leaning back in his chair) Uh, we're not voting on this show, Paula ... Oh dawg, this just wasn't your night. Come on, how could you misspell argillaceous? Don't you know that the Latin suffix "aceous" is often used in adjectives corresponding to classification names?

(We now return to reality)

As it is now, the spellers simply hear a little bell ding when they blow the spelling of a word never uttered outside a spelling bee. Then they walk off the stage, knowing that although they didn't win first place, they achieved something they can brag about while getting stuffed in a locker at school.

OK, I just reinforced a ridiculous stereotype. The truth is, not every elite speller is a total Poindexter who in 20 years will annually make more money than I will make in my lifetime. (I know this because I was a nerd in high school, and I don't make that much money now and I can't spell "succedaneum."

And the truth is, I will watch the National Spelling Bee. I like to see these sharp young minds get rewarded for their academic discipline. I like to see kids who can spell "sclerodermatous" despite growing up in a misspelled world of Froot Loops, Cheez Whiz and Beanee Weenees.

Another note on a misspelled world: Why would a manufacturer of EDUCATIONAL toys go by the name Playskool? That's like having a tutoring service called "One Plus One is Three."

It's also more reason to cheer these 275 elite spelling go-getters. So that's what I'm doing today, and that's what I'll do Thursday night. I've even decided who I'm rooting for:

The kids with an older sibling who has already competed in a National Spelling Bee.


Because it's got to be difficult to follow in the footsteps of a sibling who can call you an ignoramus and spell it correctly, too. I think the younger brothers and sisters deserve a chance for their own paradisiac moment.

With a win Thursday night, the jollification can begin.

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