Last night's live airing of the Scripps National Spelling Bee was perhaps the most gripping television I've seen in recent years. I didn't set out to watch it; the etymological Olympics weren't even remotely on my radar screen. My husband and stepson were flipping through channels and bemoaning the lack of new programming, when they hit upon the spelling bee. The championship was in its final throes -- only seven spellers remained.
After several tense seconds and a series of face-contorting expressions to rival Jim Carrey, thirteen-year-old Evan O'Dorney correctly spelled schuhplattler -- a Bavarian courtship dance -- and we were hooked. We picked favorites and placed side bets.
It was gripping, edge-of-the-seat drama, as junior geniuses pondered words we'd never heard before -- requesting definitions, language of origin, alternate pronunciations, context -- before taking a stab at each word. Cutie-patooty Matthew Evans was felled by fauchard, a Medievial weapon with a curved blade. I felt his loss like a fauchard to the gut.
Some of these squirm-inducing sequences ended with the hot-seat contestant briskly providing the letter-perfect answer with a knowing nod and a glint in the eye bordering on a wink -- making us wonder whether all the stalling was for dramatic effect. Were these fresh-faced seventh- and eight-graders highly trained media-savvy performers?
This cynicism is borne of a culture currently dominated by "reality" TV that bears little resemblance to reality. Heavily scripted, sliced-and-diced, and packaged for maximum sensational effect, these shows convince few viewers that things are really as they appear. Just wait for anyone ever kicked off the island or booted out of the boardroom to make the talk-show rounds and insist that they weren't really spatting/scheming/sleeping with whomever they were shown spatting/scheming/sleeping with. While I tend to avoid reality TV on principle (I'm still waiting for the sitcom to rise from the ashes and reclaim primetime), I do get sucked in on occasion. (Who wouldn't be arrested at the sight of Marcia Brady patting her cellulite-ridden thighs on Celebrity Fit Club?)
But after last night, I may turn to spelling bees for my reality fix. If the Scripps Spelling Bee had been a Mark Burnett-style production, we'd have been treated to behind-the-scenes footage of players forming alliances, strategizing to trip up the frontrunners; Isabel Jacobson, the last female speller standing (you go, girl!), pitting the boys against each other by stage-whispering invitations to clandestine trysts; We'd "overhear" overstressed kids being browbeaten by parents who'd caught them peaking at comic books rather than practicing Croatian conjugation.
But who needs all that? We had O'Dorney, who ultimately took the title after correctly spelling "serrefine," revealing in his post-win interview that he's not really fond of spelling after all. He's a math and music buff. He appreciates the orderly logic of math and the creative expression of music, but spelling just requires "a bunch of memorization."
Like the best television, the Bee provoked thought but didn't provide all the answers in neatly packaged sound bites. We were left to wonder how a kid who dislikes spelling became the national champ. Are his parents overbearing ogres who pushed him relentlessly ("Spell, dammit, spell!"), or did he recognize his own natural propensity and push himself to succeed, simply because he could?
More food for thought: O'Dorney is the third home-schooled child to win the Scripps title. Many parents, myself included, question the effectiveness of home-schooling. We know we could do a better job of educating our kids in some subjects than others. We worry that our children wouldn't get a well-rounded education at home, and would miss out on the social aspects of attending a brick-and-mortar school. And we fear we won't be the taskmasters that kids often need when it comes to schoolwork. A friend of mine who home-schooled her kids started out with the best of intentions but before long the kids were spending the bulk of their day watching TV and playing outside, while mom tried to get her own freelance work and housecleaning done. The "school day" became shorter and shorter, and ultimately the kids failed. But home-schooling obviously can work, as O'Dorney and others illustrate.
The best moment came when Scripps director Kenneth W. Lowe asked O'Dorney if winning had made him reconsider his feelings about spelling. After a long pause, the self-assured O'Dorney (whose win nabbed him more than $50K in cash, scholarships, and academic swag), deadpanned, "Are you saying I'm supposed to like it more?"
Now that's reality!