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Who Has Time To Sit For A Spell?

By Tom Danehy

JUNE 28, 1999:  IT WAS AN event so unexpectedly shocking, so unmitigatingly evil, I may never watch TV again. I just know that I'll never again see anything that raw, that passionate, that totally and unashamedly bizarre. I yelled myself hoarse screaming at the tube as, one by one, those poor creatures were led to the slaughter. And yet, like that demented portrait of Kramer on Seinfeld, I couldn't take my eyes off it.

I'm sure you're all aware by now that I'm talking about, of course, the National Spelling Bee. On ESPN. That last part may be the strangest element of them all. Why in the world is a spelling bee on ESPN? What, did the National Scrabble Tournament get rained out?

The spelling bee has been around for a long time, but it gained national prominence last year when the winner turned out to be a home-schooled kid whose performance pretty much screamed for her parents and all other home-schooling weenies to be rounded up and dealt with. The kid looked like a caged animal, totally taken by surprise that there were human beings on the face of the earth other than Mom and Dad and their cell of white supremacist friends.

She shouted every letter as though its release relieved some sort of constipation, then danced the whitest boogie dance of all time when she got one right. It was truly frightening.

From what I understand, she went on to become the poster child for Ritalin.

This year's bee didn't have that one major weirdo, but it had its share of drama. For those of you for whom time has been kind in allowing you to forget the classroom spelling-bee humiliation of standing up until you screwed up, at which time you could sit down, the format for the national bee is this: one by one, the kids step to the microphone to be given a word. The word is stated in all of its various pronunciations, after which the idiot kids immediately ask, "Are there any other pronunciations?"

They then can ask the origin of the word and for the word to be used in a sentence, which usually comes out like, "Your word is tergiversate. The sentence is: 'This will probably be the only time in which you will ever hear the word 'tergiversate,' unless you misspell it, in which case the voices will haunt you with it the rest of your days.' "

Then they can ask all three questions again. And then again. After nine questions, the kids state the word and the announcer says it again. Then the kid says it again and so does the guy as they take part in a verbal dance of death.

If, by some miracle, the kid gets it right, he goes to the end of the line and waits his next turn. If he misses it, a small bell rings and the kid gets dragged off the stage by some woman whose name must be Frau Something.

All the while, announcers are whispering voice-overs for the TV audience, saying things like, "Ooh, we're in the third round now. That means we're using words that only four people in the history of mankind have ever heard of before. If we get to the sixth round, we will be using computer-generated words which didn't exist until 20 minutes before the start of the show."

They keep going until they have one winner, who gets a computer or something. Yeah, that's what the kid needs, something to keep him indoors a little longer.

Here are some of the highlights (and lights of other directions) from this year's bee:

Apparently, white people no longer know how to spell. The finalists all had names like Nupur Lala, Yan Zhong and Afra Ullah. You gotta figure if they can spell their own names, they can handle anything the judges throw at them.

I guess when Dan Quayle did the "potatoe" thing, he took a whole race down with him.

Being the son of immigrants myself, I appreciate the vitality that newcomers bring to our country. Now, there's an added benefit. We need immigrants to keep spelling alive and vital in America.

There were 265 kids in this year's bee, and not a comb among them. One poor kid looked like his head lice were spelling out words for him. And then there was a girl who looked like her hair was done by Janis Joplin just after the needle went in.

They seriously use words that no one has ever heard of. I don't even know if they're real.

"The word is 'gnixlization.' It's a noun which means that tiny sound which comes out of your throat when you yawn too hard in church. Gnixlization."

I consider myself to have a pretty large vocabulary, but of all the words they used that entire day, I had heard of exactly one, and then, according to them, I spelled it wrong. (It was "pfeffernuss," those nasty little rock-hard Christmas cookies that no one ever eats. I coulda sworn there was an "e" at the end.)

All of the kids have a speller's tan, meaning their skin is so pale, you don't know where their crisp white shirts end and their necks begin. Even the Pakistanis have that look of "I haven't seen the sun since they made me do that dreadful P.E. thing back in the fourth grade once. They probably would've made me keep doing it if I hadn't gotten that injunction."

When they get a word right, they are quietly exhilarated, as though they're thinking, "Oh please let me win. I don't know if I can take one more summer at Spelling Camp." Just imagine that place; the kids have to spell for their supper and they'd serve stuff like couscous and Welsh rarebit.

(I wonder what would happen if they were serving meat loaf. Would the kids tank it on purpose and just eat the Jello?)

There is obviously an undeniable correlation between wearing glasses and spelling ability.

As if they don't look dorky enough in the matching Brave New World khaki pants and oversized polo shirts, the poor kids have to wear sandwich-board-sized placards around their necks with three-digit numbers on them. That way all the thousands of cheering fans in the audience can tell the players without a scorecard.

I didn't stick around to see the winner. I had...what did I have? Oh, I know, a life.

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