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"Bee Good"

By Gregory Keer

NOTE: This is the first piece in a collection of articles called, “The Word Series.”

We have hoop dreams and fields of dreams, but might Bee dreams be taking their place among the ambitions of young competitors? If the sight of adolescent walking dictionaries on a channel usually reserved for the likes of Alex Rodriguez and LeBron James is any indication, spelling is becoming the sport of choice for those with the drive and the brainpower.

Since 1995, ESPN has broadcast the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee ( and gained greater viewing audiences each year. Interest in the Bee reached a peak, last year, prompting ESPN’s parent network, ABC, to broadcast the competition live. For this year’s spelling throw-down, held in Washington, DC, on May 30-31, ESPN will again show the semifinals and ABC will televise the remarkably exciting finals.

Intelligence as Sport

Why has the nation gone crazy for a contest that dates back 80 years and features 9- to 15-year-olds? Madison Avenue may think Americans have brains that resemble fast-food hamburgers, but a closer look shows we have an affinity for intelligence and a desire to show the world we can still win the intellectual Olympics. The Bee provides proof that we’ve got bright children in the land that has enjoyed being first in such cognitive accomplishments as putting humans on the moon and winning more Nobel Prizes than any country in the world. It’s also a bit of a coup that this great melting pot puts numerous children of immigrants into the spelling world’s big show, as if to say to those up-and-coming nations, “They play for our team!”

Another factor is that we revel in the triumphs of gawky, wide-eyed youngsters. A lot of these kids are from non-athletic, bookish crowd, a group more adults belonged to than care to admit. In rooting for these kids, we’re cheering for underdogs, the ones who prove that brains can be mightier than brawn, or at least just as entertaining.

Not to be forgotten is the power of persuasion, especially for parents who watch the Bee with their children, hoping to inspire them to see that words have power. Indeed, kids get a charge out of watching their contemporaries battle it out in front of a crowd and under the gaze of TV cameras. Some, though not all, children ask their parents to quiz them on words just for fun, after seeing the Bee. The popularity of the national contest has beefed up the participation in local and state bees, showing that this may be one of the healthiest and most productive means of competition we have. It’s even spilled over into the recently launched high-school level National Vocabulary Championship, sponsored by cable television’s Game Show Network.

While the social and psychological roots have existed for the Bee to widen its audience, much credit goes to ESPN for airing the verbal throwdown. Another likely reason is the popularity of a small spate of films that dramatize the lives of the children and families who take on the quest to be the nation’s best speller.

Three Wordy Movies

In 2002, the documentary Spellbound became one of the biggest revenue-producing nonfiction movies of all time. Director Jeffrey Blitz followed eight teenagers through 1999 Spelling Bee, which was won by Nupur Lala, who correctly recited the letters to “logorrhea.” Aside from Lala, quirky contestant Harry Altman (who kept asking “What time is it” during a painful contemplation of a word he ultimately misspelled) stands out for the unexpected comedy he provides. Suited for children 10 and older, Spellbound unflinchingly peeks into the behind-the-scenes world of really smart, often stressed-out kids and their family dynamics, as well as the kinetic atmosphere of the Bee itself.

A movie for all ages is Akeelah and the Bee. The 2006 release is a Rocky for the spelling world, with Akeelah (played by the magnetically down-to-earth Keke Palmer) struggling in a single-parent household (portrayed by a strong Angela Basset), going to a poorly resourced high school, and living in a community where spelling is not seen as a ticket to success. In the role of Akeelah’s professorial mentor, Laurence Fishburne adds emotional weight and elegance. The movie, partially financed by Starbucks (which sold DVD copies in its stores), shows how so many people in Akeelah’s life, even the naysayers, helped her get to the final round of the Spelling Bee.

While the book by Myla Goldberg received critical acclaim, the 2005 big-screen adaptation falls short. Richard Gere and Juliette Binoche star as the parents of a spelling whiz named Eliza (played by Flora Cross). Because of mature family themes and deep contemplation about the mystical qualities of words, the film is best suited for adults. Still, in focusing the plot around the verbal competitions, the movie and the book represent further examples of our fascination with spelling bees.

What You Can Do

Later this month, 286 young contestants will engage in the Scripps National Spelling Bee and millions will see them on television. Even if you only try it once, watch the Bee with your kids. For most children, their interest may not start until they’re at least in kindergarten, and many will find it incredibly dull. If your child really gets into it, play a spelling bee game at home and encourage them to try out for their school’s own bee. Whatever you do, heed the message shown throughout the films described above – the love of words must be nurtured but not forced on children. We should follow our children’s lead, whether it takes them to spelling championships or to correctly spelled e-mails.


About the Author
Gregory Keer is a writer, teacher, and father of three boys. He can be reached at


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