To Bee or Not To Bee

Spelling bees bring back good memories for me, and I’ve written about my experiences before.

I remember spending the summers after sixth and seventh grade going to our school’s convent and sitting on the porch with retired Sister Miriam and practicing my spelling for an hour a day.

I’m sure that’s nothing compared to what students do today to get prepared for spelling bees.

In an article in the Wall Street Journal, the writer, Dr. Shalini Shankar, notes that elite competitors start to develop spelling careers as early as age 6, with the hopes of achieving great things by 14, when most age out.

While that seems a little over the top to me, if the kids are enjoying it, there are worse things they could be doing with their time.

But where parents (and others) cross the line, in my opinion, is when they flaunt the rules.

According to Shankar, last year Scripps, the company that sponsors the National Spelling Bee, had its first-ever class of “invited” spellers: kids who lost at regionals but whose parents agreed to pay an entry fee of $750 and fund their family’s own travel and lodging, potentially thousands of dollars more.

And in fact, that is the route that last year’s winner took to get to Nationals.

This new pay-to-play option, called “RSVBee,” nearly doubled the number of young people vying for the championship to more than 500. It also changed what it takes to access this high-prestige contest, adding significant money to the mix. For this year’s event, which takes place next week, Scripps has raised the fee to $1,500, getting even more takers. Now, the paying contestants will outnumber those who got there the traditional way.

To me, there’s just something wrong about this.

The rules used to be pretty simple. You won your school spelling bee to qualify for the regional spelling bee. You won the regional spelling bee to qualify for Nationals. But as soon as you misspell a word, anywhere along the way, you were finished.

That was the beauty, and the drama, of the spelling bee. One misspelled word, and you were out.

But that is no longer the case. You can lose somewhere along the line, but if your family has the money, you can buy your way back into Nationals. I guess some people just can’t accept those simple rules.

It’s not just the parents who are to blame, however.

Why would Scripps do this?

Shankar notes that Scripps gives its rationale for the program as making the competition more fair and inclusive, not less. Some areas of the country lack regional sponsors to pay winners’ way to the national event, and some have more crowded regional competitions than others, so spellers face geographic inequities. “Through RSVBee we are proud to open a door that had closed, often for matters beyond the participants’ control,” said Paige Kimble, the Bee’s executive director.

It seems to have worked fine for the past 90 plus years, so I’m not buying it. It seems as if the National Spelling Bee has become big business and must-see TV. So perhaps no surprise that money has entered into the picture.

I wonder if Scripps thought of the idea itself, or if there was pressure from parents to make such a change.

No matter who came up with the idea, it’s a bad one.

And it’s a slippery slope.

Can someone who misspells a word at Nationals keep buying their way back into the next round of the National Spelling Bee?

You might think that sounds crazy, but to me, it’s no different than what was started last year with the RSVBee program – giving students who lost in a legitimate competition a second chance.

I’m all for second chances in many aspects of life, but most competitions are one and done. You lose, and you’re out. And that’s the way it should be.

Should we let golfers who fail to make the cut buy their way back in so they can play on the weekend? Sure, there’s a chance they could win if allowed back in, but that’s not the way the game works.

Or what if we make March Madness even crazier? Let teams buy their way back in if they lose! Again, there is a chance that if they are let back in they could win the National Tournament, but that’s not how it is meant to be played.

I’m disappointed that Scripps has made this change, and I’m disappointed that parents take advantage of it.

I was quite disappointed that I never made it to the National Spelling Bee, coming in 27th, 8th, and 4th in the regional competition the three years I competed. I had worked hard, but it wasn’t meant to be.

Sometimes that happens in life.

I think that’s a lesson that kids today, and their parents, need to learn.