When Global Catastrophe Cancels an American Icon
The National Spelling Bee is bigger than a simple academic competition. The kids who get there are bigger than that, too.
What do WWII and COVID-19 have in common? They’re the only events in American history that have curtailed the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
A cultural icon was born in 1925 when Frank Neuhauser won $500 for correctly spelling “gladiolus.” President Calvin Coolidge congratulated him personally for out-spelling two million qualifying American children on the local level and eight other contestants in Washington, DC. And for nearly ninety straight years, the tradition continued. The words got harder, the competition smarter, and in 2019, eight brilliant students were declared octo-champs and made history by defeating the dictionary together.
But in 1943, 1944, and 1945, a tradition that some have called as American as apple pie or baseball came to a screeching halt. The culprit? A little global problem you may have heard of called World War Two. For three years, no national champion graced the capital stage. The E.W. Scripps Company, which had just recently taken over sponsorship of the Bee in 1941, brought it back with a boom in 1946 — televised live for the very first time (NBC, in those days — ESPN, today).
For seventy-four years, the Bee continued strong. Preteens and young teens (Bee eligibility has no minimum age requirement these days, but ends abruptly in eighth grade) gathered every year in or around Washington, D.C. to engage in what eventually became three grueling days of competition. As an eighth-grader in 2009, I lived through the most thrilling seven days of my life when I qualified for the national finals and got to attend Bee Week at the 82nd Annual Scripps National Spelling Bee.
The Bee (always capitalized, like the President or the Constitution) is a sudden-death competition. When you misspell a word, unless every other contestant in that round also misspells, you’re out. No second chances. No takebacks. A bell pierces your consciousness and you walk alone offstage. For a kid who’s barely hit puberty and has spent the last several years frantically studying for this moment, it’s killer. When I got the chance to vie for that hulking trophy, I was one of the lucky ones — a sufficiently high score on the first-day written test meant that as long as I aced my words in the preliminary rounds, I was secure to go through to the semifinal competition and enjoy a moment of fame on a sports network my nerdy self never watched. Luck would not have it, however — after conquering words like “valedictorian,” “civitas,” and “Micawber,” I hit a brick wall with the relatively easy “halogen” and ousted myself from the competition.
Eleven years later, it still hurts.
Today, the news that the 93rd Annual Scripps National Spelling Bee has been unequivocally canceled is hurting other hearts much more than that ringing bell in 2009 hurt mine. Though I may have blown it like a faulty halogen light bulb, I still got my chance. Hundreds of students who worked and sweated and studied and climbed their way to the highest plane this year will not.
The decision to cancel this year’s Bee was not done lightly, I know. The administrative team that runs the competition is a group of highly skilled, whip-smart adults (you have to be, to manage a dozens upon dozens of whip-smart kids trying to out-spell each other for a week) and their decision must have been a difficult and painful one. For the safety of all concerned, the cancellation of the Bee due to the risks from the coronavirus is a logical choice. But that doesn’t give the opportunity of a lifetime back to those who have now lost it.
For many, the announcement that the Bee this year has been canceled and will not be rescheduled is nothing more than a blip on the radar. It’s fun to watch every year on ESPN, but there are other programs on TV and other smart kids to applaud. No great loss, right? They’ll be back next year. It’s just a spelling bee.
But I think back to myself at fourteen. I remember how I ate, drank, breathed, slept the Bee. I remember reading everything I could get my hands on about it (I wore my first copy of How to Spell Like a Champ to tatters and was happy to win a replacement at my regional competition). I could rattle off Bee history in the same way some kids could recite football stats. (Some of it has stuck with me through a decade— though I did fact-check the historical nuggets I included here, just to be safe.) The people who ran the competition were more than figureheads; they were like celebrities to my geeky mind. (I still treasure the blurry photo I have of me beside Dr. Jacques Bailly, 1980 champion and longtime Bee pronouncer. A rock star!) I remember watching the 1999 documentary Spellbound over and over, snatching at the words used in the filmed competitions and stashing them in one of my several study notebooks. My insatiable thirst for words spilled over into my just-for-fun reading — I started picking longer, older books on purpose that I hoped would contain elusive words I hadn’t learned yet.
After winning my regional competition and securing my spot at the national finals, it was all I could think about. I became a zombie with a single focus: spelling bee, spelling bee, spellllllllling beeeeeeeeee. Projecting beyond the end of eighth grade and the scary looming high school years that would follow was out of my scope at that point. I couldn’t fathom moving past the spelling bee. It was my world.
Oddly enough, it was the 1944 movie National Velvet that brought me back to reality — an old technicolor film starring Elizabeth Taylor as a horse-crazy girl who rides her piebald gelding to victory in a steeplechase. Her mother, once a champion swimmer who set records by crossing the English channel, counsels her to keep her head, that her life will still go on after this race is over. Everything happens in its own season. This may be her horse’s season, but — hard as it is for twelve-year-old Velvet to comprehend — it will not define her entire life.
Of course, the Bee didn’t end up defining my life. (I didn’t even win, after all, and the competition did not impact my academic or professional future as it did for the highly skilled few who went home with scholarships over the years.) I moved on, finished high school, entered the workforce, went to college, got married, picked up other hobbies, and didn’t even watch the broadcast in its entirety after a few years. And hard as it may be to accept now, the Bee — or lack thereof, this year — will not define the lives of the students who have had it snatched from them.
Crushing disappointment and even anger are perfectly reasonable responses right now. To my own (and many others’) dismay, those who were in their last year of eligibility in 2020 will not be allowed to compete in 2021, since they will have passed the ironclad gate of eighth grade graduation. Their time is up. For many, who like me only reached the entrance to the nationals in eighth grade after several years of perseverance, this is a cruel blow. They have spent perhaps a third of their lives thus far reaching for this accomplishment.
I’ve had this article sitting in drafts for a little while, hoping I wouldn’t actually write it, but dreading the announcement I knew was likely to come. In early March, Scripps suspended the Bee indefinitely, with a hopeful statement about rescheduling later in the year. But as the pandemic spread, lockdown increased, and risk factors for large gatherings became more threatening, the likelihood seemed less and less. The unique nature of this competition renders it very difficult to simply move online as many events have done (though apparently this option was seriously considered). The threat of COVID-19 joined the threat of German or Japanese invasion, and history was made. Again.
Living through a moment that makes history is not nearly so cool as I thought it might be when I was, ironically, in middle school.
My heart goes out to the students who are devastated today. I may know what disappointment feels like, but I can’t imagine the emotions they are going through in knowing that even the feeling of disappointment that accompanies “spelling out” has been taken from them. I don’t mean to invalidate their pain by drawing on my own experiences; only to empathize with everything that is in my power to do so. I am devastated on their behalf. I hope they know it is okay to grieve this. Sure, there are bigger things going on in the world today. But at twelve, thirteen, and fourteen, the promise of this important moment is one of the biggest honors attainable for a word nerd. It is monumental. And the loss of it is a hard blow. It is okay to mourn what could have been.
Looking back over 93 years, the Bee’s resilience truly is remarkable. Despite a Great Depression, numerous later wars and rumors of wars, protests and riots in the host city, the only two things that have stopped its indefatigable progress have been Nazis and COVID-19. What an icon!
And when you dig a little deeper, into the lives of the students who made their way to the Bee’s stage in Washington, the splendor of the competition itself pales in comparison to their tenacity and determination. (Yes, this is a plug for Spellbound. It’s on Amazon Prime. You should watch it. No, I am not in any way affiliated with the film or getting paid to say that.) They’ve overcome so much to get onto that stage.
The pandemic that blocked their way to that stage this year will not, cannot stop the drive that took them there in the first place.
Every year, the kids who finished in last place are given the same cheesy shtick as the ones who made it to the final late-night rounds: they are all champions, just by being there. I still remember rolling my eyes with my new friends when we heard that at the awards banquet — but deep down, I savored it, cheese and all. Because the Bee is about so much more than a heavyweight trophy, substantial cash prize, and live appearances on Jimmy Kimmel. It’s about hard work and hope and fierce determination. It’s about beating the odds and knowing that you are and have been and can be a winner, even if Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged gets you down in the end. None of this disappears at the end of Bee Week, at the end of a regional competition, even at the end of a school-wide written test. It’s an exercise in building character that sticks around for a lifetime.
Spellers of 2020, I salute you. COVID-19 may have toppled the competition, but it will not bring you down. You got this far, after all. You will go much farther. You are u-n-s-t-o-p-p-a-b-l-e.