About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
My first word was mango.
It was my first spelling bee, in my school gymnasium. I was nine.
I knew the word. I had studied the word. Besides, it is spelled phonetically.
So, with ease, the letters quickly rolled off my tongue.
A bell rang. Huh? I was in shock. What happened? It was not until I made it off the stage that my teacher explained my error. I bravely fought back tears and skulked back to the floor of the gymnasium with my schoolmates to watch the rest of the bee. I knew every word offered in that bee, and it stung to know that all I had to show for it was last place.
As a child, I developed an ever-growing fondness for words—words with shapes, textures, and tastes that delighted my senses and fueled my imagination. I devoured these words in library books while my father scoured the daily newspaper in search of interesting ones for me to learn.
One evening my family and I had stumbled upon a broadcast of the National Spelling Bee. I was captivated by the glorious, sometimes obscure words being offered to the young people on that stage and thrilled that I could spell some of the easier ones. And so my dream of participating in spelling bees was born, and there was nothing I wanted more than to go to the National Spelling Bee.
It might have been easy for me to drop my National Spelling Bee dream after the mango fiasco, but I was on fire about words. Time passed and my performance in spelling bees improved. My vocabulary and understanding of language patterns expanded greatly. There were disappointments, though, and more than once my parents asked,
“Do you really want to do this?”
My answer was this: Finally, three years and three months after “m-a-g-n-o,” I stood on a stage in Washington, D.C., and with a quivering voice, equal parts joy and nerves, correctly spelled the final word of the 1981 National Spelling Bee—sarcophagus.
A lot has changed since 1981. But instead of withering into antiquity, thanks to spellcheck, spelling bees are more popular than ever, saluted in documentaries like Spellbound, novels and movies like Bee Season, and even a Broadway musical entitled The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. The publication of this book closely follows the release of another movie about spelling, Akeelah and the Bee, and James Maguire’s book about our obsession with spelling, American Bee. This year, a whopping 274 spellers from all fifty states, as well as Guam, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, the Bahamas, Jamaica, Canada, and New Zealand converged on Washington, D.C., for the 79th Annual Scripps National Spelling Bee. That’s not bad for a program that began with only nine finalists in 1925.
So kudos to the teachers and parents who inspire children to get it right, whether it’s a math problem or a challenging spelling word. And kudos to the kids who have the motivation to study words, the spunk to spell in front of a crowd, and the courage to acknowledge and learn from their successes and failures.