Remembering the sting of spelling bees past


It’s been 50 years or more since I “competed” in a spelling bee. If I’m remembering correctly, it didn’t end well.

Now if the competition had been what was on the back of a baseball card, they would have all eaten my dust.

But it wasn’t.

I’m sure my elimination came early, probably on something simple like knife or aardvark. The way we did it was standing in front of the classroom and then taking a seat as each classmate misspelled a word - often to the snickers of others – until only one speller remained.

The last one standing was the champion (also known as the bookworm because the word nerd wasn’t being used yet. There may have been times when I bowed out on purpose so as not to be the aforementioned bookworm aka nerd).

I honestly don’t recall the class champion going beyond being just that although, never having been even a class champion myself, I could be wrong. It seems like we may have had a city spelling champion. The Scripps National Spelling Bee has been around for 94 years so obviously spelling champions have been advancing for a long time.

At that time I was in elementary and middle school, nobody would have thought my career was going to be writing, at least based on spelling skills. Of course, journalism is more than spelling, but it certainly makes things a lot more readable if you do that well. (By the way, those memorized statistics on the back of baseball cards came in handy during my 30 years of writing sports for a daily newspaper).

Over 44 years of writing stories, my spelling is much better than my rogue elementary days, too. But after reading about our national spelling champions – all eight of them – I would never be any match for them.

Among the words that earned spellers a share of the title: "auslaut," ''palama," ''cernuous" and "odylic." I’m pretty sure those aren’t words that any of us would use in a sentence. Ever. Just the same, some spelling bee diehards said the words were too easy. Now that’s hardcore.

The fact that the national spelling competition is now shown on ESPN tells you something about the popularity of the event. We marvel at watching these kids spell these ridiculous words, often contorting their faces or yelling out the correct letters in the word.

It took 5½ hours to narrow the field from 50 kids to 16.
Eight spellers made it through two more rounds perfectly and then made it through another round without missing in a competition that lasted until midnight.

They were declared eight-way champions and each of them received the $50,000 scholarship that went with it. They were mentally and physically fatigued.

All eight of the spelling champions were on Today the following morning and were collectively asked to raise their hand if they thought the bee should have continued until only one spelling champion remained. Not one of them raised their hand.

They did what they were asked to do and spelled some of the most outrageous words you never knew existed. They prepared for months – maybe years - and they conquered. Nobody cared that they weren’t the only champion and, in fact, said they held their collective breath and cheered each other on with each correctly spelled word to the very end.

I say kudos to the octet (see how my spelling and vocabulary have improved?) and the national spelling bee for ending this particular year in a perfect eight-way tie.

Mark Maynard is managing editor of Kentucky Today. Reach him at


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