Contradiction in Terms
You say to-may-toe; I say toh-mah-tah. Deal with it.
Monday, July 04, 2005

Bee-coming Me

Last night, Dean and I had the pleasure of watching Spellbound, the completely enthralling, engaging documentary about the U.S. National Spelling Bee. We were amazed to learn that some kids spend up to nine hours a day, six months a year preparing for these things... Even scarier, some of the parents are so into it that they, too, devote a huge chunk of their time, eschewing any semblance of a social life to instead devise “spelling methodologies” and drill their kids to be letter-perfect in over 4,000 words. Apparently, winning the Nationals (over nine million competitors, mind you) is considered a life-changing event, over and above the 10,000 dollars (!) and media frenzy (!) that accompanies the victory.

It just goes to show you.

I won the Philippine National Spelling Bee way back when I was in fifth or sixth grade. I don’t remember getting any money for it, nor was there anything remotely resembling what you’d call a media frenzy. I got a special mention in our school newsletter, whoopee. I got a trophy, the whereabouts of which are now completely unknown to me. It did not change my life.

On the other hand, unlike those kids in the documentary, I did not have to study at all for the school competition, nor for the regionals. After I qualified for the actual nationals, my school did provide a spelling coach for me: we worked two hours a day at most, for all of a month or so. She’d give me a list of new words every day, and the next day she’d quiz me on them. Most of them were words I already knew, with the exception of weird whoppers like “triskaidekaphobia”. (Who would actually make up a word to encapsulate “fear of the number thirteen”?) In contrast, these poor American kids have to know and understand words that I, as a 32-year-old, had never even heard until yesterday: “Heleoplankton.” “Apocope.” “Logorrhea.”

So maybe the lesson is, the reward is equivalent to the challenge. Maybe my life would have been entirely different had I needed to do more than glance over a sheet of paper and mostly snicker at how many of the words I had already encountered as a mad and dedicated bibliovore. But I have to acknowledge that the experience did provide me with one defining moment...

One of my mom’s office friends happened to be attending the National Spelling Bee for a completely unrelated reason which I don’t remember. In any case, she knew that I was competing, but had never met me, so she didn’t know which kid I was. (We were identified by our school and region rather than by name.)

When I stepped up to the microphone, the announcer spoke the word I was supposed to spell for that round: “ReconnAISSance,” he said.

Without even thinking about it, I returned, “reCONNaissance,” instinctively and not-too-subtly correcting the announcer before going on to properly spell out the word.

“Ah,” thought my mother’s office mate, “that’s Mina’s daughter.”

So maybe it did change my life. Folks who know me know perfectly well that I go around habitually correcting people’s pronunciation when I think they won’t mind; and having to viciously bite my tongue to stop myself when I think they will mind. I also go around mentally editing the labels of food products, sniping at ungrammatical billboards, and, as you may know, lecturing endlessly on such topics in this blog. So maybe it was the National Spelling Bee that eventually turned me into a writer/editor by nature and profession.

But more likely, you know, it's just that I’m Mina’s daughter.
Nikki bit in at 2:00 PM :: ::
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