I meant to write this post days ago, but it’s been one of those weeks where I just couldn’t convince myself to do the things I should. But I wanted to talk for just a minute about the Scripps-Howard Spelling Bee that was on TV this week.
The first thing I want to say is that I am an abysmal speller (and don’t think I didn’t get a little help on the spelling of ‘abysmal.’)* When I lived in Austin, I applied for some jobs with UT, and they required a spelling test. I took the test twice and never scored high enough to apply for a secretarial position with the school. So, I was never a viable spelling bee candidate. But there’s a documentary about students participating in the National Spelling Bee called Spellbound that I am in love with. I’m actually watching it as I type this.
*In fact, if you spot any typos in this post, let’s consider them an intentional inside joke between you and me. A little wink and a nudge. Definitely not something you should point out to me because, obviously, I did that on purpose.
When the movie first came out, I suggested to a friend that we should go see it at a local art house theatre. Sometimes I’m such a nerd, I become embarrassed about something as I’m talking about it. When I taught, I sometimes brought in this game called Apples to Apples, and I’d explain how to play to the students by saying, “There are noun cards and there are adjective cards…” and some of them couldn’t stifle the groans and sighs at how lame this sounds. But that game is awesome and by the end of class they want to keep playing. Sometimes I’m a nerd who just happens to be totally right. I think I’m right when I say that Spellbound is awesome.
It’s “Academy Award Nominee” levels of good!
The film follows eight kids who are competing in the Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee. They are from wildly different backgrounds. Ashley lives in inner city D.C., Ted is growing up on a farm where his family raises peacocks, Angela’s father doesn’t speak English, and Emily references her au pair and equestrian lessons. April compares her parents to Archie and Edith bunker, and bless her, she’s not wrong.
As you meet these kids, they are all awkward in a way that is cringingly reminiscent of my own adolescence. I would have fit right in with them at that age with my frizzy hair and braces only on my bottom teeth. Maybe that’s why these kids got to me so much. But once I’d met them in individual vignettes, I wanted them all to win, and that’s where the drama begins.
Because, of course, they can’t all win. And as they started being eliminated, it occurred to me that maybe NONE of them would win. This isn’t a Hollywood movie. I’m not guaranteed a happy ending here. The film doesn’t provide a correct spelling on the screen for the audience, so my friend and I would wait anxiously to see if they would ring the bell to indicate a misspelling. It also led to a few embarrassing moments where we would shake our heads because clearly it’s an “e” not an “a” only to realize the kid was right. It’s really intense, you guys!
The film is also full of really funny, quirky moments like catching Alex Cameron, the bee’s official pronouncer, practicing words in his hotel room or one eliminated contestant’s older brother saying, “I still think he spelled it right.” Me too, kid.
So, if you can’t get enough of likable young people being incredibly literate, you might want to check it out. And then we’ll discuss why you should watch Murderball, the documentary about quadriplegic rugby.