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Putting a spelling bee in their bonnets

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I pictured it as one of those memories you always hear aging men talk about:

"I'll never forget the day my old man took me to Game 4 of the 1950 World Series at Yankee Stadium," they'll say.

That's the way I wanted my boys to remember the Super Bowl for Nerds, the World Series of Words, the life-altering experience I was about to unveil to them -- the final round of the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

It was a Tiger Mom move for sure.

But with some recent gems like "yoripiyans" (Europeans) coming from my eight-year-old, I thought it wouldn't be bad to focus a little on spelling with my boys.

First of all, the spelling bee stage at the Gaylord Hotel at National Harbor is enough to impress any kid.

A huge, glowing, made-for-TV affair, we had to go through badge passes and security checks and metal detectors to get inside. I got press credentials, they got wrist bands. A heavily tattooed cop kitted out in tactical gear supervised my purse search. I had their attention.

Within about 15 minutes, they were hooked. The tension in the room, the tiny spellers on stage, the applause, the commercial breaks. It was all so exciting.

They pawed through the program and found their favourite spellers.

When Grace Remmer, 14, spelled "emmeleia" correctly, they were dazzled.

"Can we meet Grace?" my six-year-old asked. "We really want to meet Grace."

"Maybe we can get her autograph," the other one suggested.

As each speller worked through the parts of speech, language of origin and Greek roots, my kids were riveted.

"Is that word French?" my eight-year-old whispered to me, after the announcer gave the word "envoªtement" to the next speller.

"Zut alors!" I thought. Maybe I have a speller on my hands.

The only word game I've really played with them was on a recent road trip, when we thought it would be fun to pronounce all our names backwards. That lead to pronouncing certain words and phrases backwards and not 10 minutes after Alutep, both kids came up with "parc", "ssa" and, sadly, "cuff."

So we didn't go back to spelling games any time soon.

But here was a chance to see other kids being celebrated, idolized for working hard and sticking to the books.

As far as role models go, popular culture presents kids with Hannah Montana, but rarely do they get to see kids glorified for any non-glossy achievement. Packaged with ESPN's expert commentary and slick presentation, the National Spelling Bee should be required watching for all American kids.

Within 30 minutes of entering that ballroom, my kids were wolf-whooping for the correct spelling of myelogenous and trichocercous.

"Look, I'm Vanya," my six-year-old said at a commercial break, and he imitated the campy Jersey accent that 11-year-old Vanya Shivashankar performed in her televised personality profile.

My eight-year-old couldn't sit, he was so excited. The six-year-old mourned when Sriran Hathwar, 13, was knocked out by the word "ptyalagogue" in Round 13. "He was my favourite," my kindergartner said.

Not a bad role model to have.

They insisted on staying until the end, past 10 p.m., when Arvind Mahankali slayed the German language that has bedeviled him for so many years by correctly spelling "knaidel."

The confetti popped, cameras snapped and Arvind was handed the huge, shiny trophy.

We were all amped.

On the way back home in the car, I asked my kids what they had learned seeing the spelling bee. Was it all the hard work the kids did? Their poise on the stage? That intellect should be celebrated?

The six-year-old answered: "I learned that when you win a big trophy, you lift it high over your head."

 

Petula Dvorak is a columnist for the Washington Post.


--The Washington Post

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 3, 2013 A9

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