Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Can you spell 'labyrinthine?'




     The finals of the 88th Scripps National Spelling Bee are going on in Maryland over the next few days. One of those quaint bits of Americana that persists in the face of being utterly mooted by technology. Who needs to know how to spell? Tap out a jumble of letters somewhat close to the correct spelling and your phone will do the rest.
     Yet millions of kids dutifully study long lists of words, and jam themselves into the wide end of that funnel squirting out one lone champion (or, at best, like last year, two) this Friday.
     Why? That’s easy. It’s a way for children who otherwise might not find opportunities for acclaim to win big. Any kid who can run fast or pitch hard can find fleeting glory playing sports. But the ability to focus, to study hard, for years? Who honors that? You’ve got science fairs, chess tournaments and the spelling bee, and that’s about it.
     This year there is bee controversy. The Washington Post, which watches the bee more closely than most, since it finishes up in the newspaper’s backyard, spotlighted the domination of the bee by Indian-American kids, who have taken the championship seven years in a row.
     Which led to ugly social media condemnation last year. Co-champions Sriram Hathwar and Ansun Sujoe “were greeted with a barrage of racist comments on Facebook and Twitter,” the Post reported, citing examples such as, “The kids in the spelling bee should only be AMERICAN.”
     Like the Post, I have a particular interest in the bee. In 1993, I was writing a book on failure, and thought it should include something related to public school — that’s where much of our fear of failure comes from, the red F, all those nightmares where you’re taking a test you haven’t studied for. But what to actually report on? A student failing a class? A girl who didn’t make the cheerleading squad? That seemed so bleak. And then I remembered the National Spelling Bee. It was perfect. Nine million kids enter. They all lose, in a public, humiliating way that gets more public and more humiliating as it goes along. And it’s spelling, it’s stupid, it’s not even a valuable skill.
       So I decided I would follow a student through a year of the bee, through local, regional, state and national bees.
     But how to find one student in the Chicago area with a chance of going to the nationals?
     I formed a strategy: hedge your bets. Those who go to the national round are often those who went to the nationals in the past. So I would observe a past state winner who would have a better chance to go back for another go. The two previous winners from Illinois were kids named Gary Lee and Sruti Nadimpalli. My reporter’s instinct told me it would be far easier to find the latter, and I did. She was 12 then, a serious girl, the child of two doctors. I followed her through her bees at the school, regional and state levels. She didn’t go to nationals, but I did, and found a brutal competition. The chapter in my book was called, “Shiver Like Rhesus Monkeys,” the way a Scripps flack described the weeping losers.
     Twenty-two years is a long time, but again, thanks to her distinctive name, I found Sruti in about 10 seconds, a doctor herself now, teaching at the Stanford University School of Medicine. I asked her how she views the bee, from the perspective of an adult in her mid-30s.
     “I think studying spelling fosters a love of language in many of the participants, the preparation is intense, and rote, and — depending on one’s parents’ approach — can be a bit much,” she wrote in an email. “In this age as well, I don’t think good spelling carries the value it used to. That said, I probably wouldn’t have opted out of participating if I could do it over again.”
     Her mention of parents made me realize something. A lot of these kids are in the bee because their folks push them. Which puts an extra cruel spin on the abuse of winners. Their ambitious, often new immigrant parents force them to participate in this surreal struggle where, after years of effort, should by some fluke they emerge victorious, then the children of parents who let them spend their youths playing Xbox await to heckle them online. That isn’t right.

25 comments:

  1. America the Beautiful...this is not. But then we knew that already, didn't we?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well it's still pretty beautiful-don't sell it short for the reason of human foibles. Let's not take it for granted either.

      Delete
  2. As a former teacher, I had some East Indian students in class. Their parents push them terribly hard. They had no life it seemed outside of study. That's not to say one should be lazy and playing video games but I don't applaud the other extreme either.

    One college east Indian student told me that the liberal arts aren't appreciated there. It was all about math and science. One needs to be well rounded though.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Have you read Macnolia by A. Van Jordan? If not, I recommend it.

    ReplyDelete
  4. What is the premise?

    ReplyDelete
  5. Relying on your handheld device for proper spelling is not the way to go. I'm sure we've all seen proof of this, ranging from the confusing to the comical to the offensive. (If not, ample instances can be found on the Damn You Autocorrect website.)

    I find it depressing that a writer would say spelling is not a valuable skill. While the ability to spell the more arcane words in the spelling bee is certainly not necessary, correct spelling is part of clarity in writing. What's next to go, punctuation? (Oh, wait; that's already on the way out. Don't get me started on apostrophes.)

    ReplyDelete
  6. Neil, I hope this column sends some of its readers to your Failure book. The spelling bee section was enlightening if horrific and you caught the flavor of Mallory's tragic end on Everest perfectly.

    John

    ReplyDelete
  7. Thanks Tate. I was always very proud of that book. I'm sure you can buy it for a penny on Amazon. I would also draw the attention of posters here to the Rocket Motel, on the upper right hand side of the page, a space I've created for people who want to express themselves and argue in an unobserved and unmoderated fashion.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Do you own the copyrights to any of your out of print books? There are a couple of services (Blue Leaf is a good one) that will convert a hardcopy to an e-reader format for a nominal price, then you could sell it via Amazon's self-publishing (CreateSpace) or the like and it's turnkey - they print/mail and send you the royalties (you can set the selling price depending on how much profit you want but Amazon at least sets a minimum price so it's worth it to them - not sure how other sellers do it).

      Delete
    2. There's no need for me to do that, as anyone who wants one can get one, for a penny and shipping. Why would I create a more expensive electronic version, considering that people don't want to spend the penny, obviously. I'm focusing on selling the next book.

      Delete
    3. A few reasons. First, neurotic as it may seem, some people don't like old books, especially if they aren't in "very good" condition and the pages have that "old book smell." Some people who don't mind used books still prefer electronic so they can read it on their kindle or tablet or phone. Also, the minimum price is $4 - there's a $3.99 shipping charge (that's how the sellers are making a wee bit of profit) and there's only a few copies available at that price and then it (using Failure as an example) jumps almost $2, and as time goes on the situation could change and the cheap copies would get bought up - if one or more ever gets a buzz you'll be preserving the book's continued availability. (One book I love, by a former Sun-Times writer, bounces up and down in price: Streetwise Chicago - tells you the origins of all the street names that aren't numbers). And it's not like you'd be taking away the option of buying the used book by offering the e-book option.

      As to the effect on your creation and marketing of the next book, that I can't say.

      Delete
    4. Remember, much of Neil's audience of readers isn't 20 somethings for the most part. That goes for most newspaper columnists. So the more middle aged or upwards audience often prefers reading the traditional way.

      Delete
  8. Something that bugs me , Coey is when some don't know how to differentiate of when to use to and too.

    Some of today's youth can't give change without the fancy register but know algebra. Let's get the basics done first.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hear, hear. I guess my biggest peeves are it's/its and you're/your. I have plenty of others! I try not to stress over it, though.

      Delete
    2. Its kinda sad, Coey, but their are folks on here who will complain that yore being to nitpicky if your sew interested in spelling and punkchewation. Don't know what they're problem is, but theyve gripped that Im O/see, myself! ; )

      Delete
    3. lol, good one, Jack

      Delete
  9. Yes Coey, those are a problem as well. Or their, they're and there.

    Neil, you should have opened a room for off topic / general news instead.

    Did anyone see today's article in the ST about the parents who got in trouble for letting their kids walk home from the park in a nice suburb. Ridiculous, CPS should have more pressing concerns.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I did. That's what it's for. Or anything else you'd like. It might not have the traffic this does, for a while, but I'm sure it'll develop its fans. Patience.

      Delete
  10. The parents who slag on those West Asian kids on the internet are the same kind who used to put "My Kid Can Beat Up Your Honor Student" stickers on their bumpers. (And maybe still do.)

    Laugh now, because your kids will be working for those kids some day.

    ReplyDelete
  11. A/N/A- I used the used book section of Amazon a great deal. As long as you use one that says it has a high % rating for the seller and the book isn't something from the 1950's and is in good condition,the used ones don't have a used or old smell.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I do too - I even still take books out of the library. But I personally know people who just don't like pre-owned books. Oddly enough, they're fine with pre-owned dvd's and cds. I think the "old book smell" thing is a function of paper quality.

      One unintentional bonus when I buy a used book that is visibly worn: if you're like me and buy more books than you actually read, the used books fool people into thinking you're a better reader than you actually are.

      Delete
    2. I do as well with the library. They have some books for sales at libraries too for great prices, though the selection is limited if you don't want Harlequin romances. No, I'm not a senior citizen.

      Just like I want to read the paper in hand and not online.

      Delete
  12. In re South Asian Indian-American parent-pressured kids: see the 2002 documentary Spellbound for an almost unbelievable except it's real example of preparing for the bee, including payment for divine intervention.

    ReplyDelete