Audio blog post by Dr. Isaacs. Click to listen and read along!

I’ve been thinking a lot about the event – or rather, non-event – of the last week of May this year. No Scripps National Spelling Bee. For the first time since World War II, on April 21st, Scripps cancelled the bee outright, along with the fun events that would have comprised Bee Week. Some spellers created petitions, pleading to allow the eighth graders who might have participated this year to get one last chance, either next year or in a separate bee. But in the official statement in which Scripps cancelled the bee, they definitively put the kibosh on this possibility, saying “Among those spellers [who cannot compete this year] are students in eighth grade. Students who have advanced beyond the eighth grade are not eligible to participate in the spelling bee program.”

If there is one thing I have learned from my years of observation, it is that once Scripps announces a decision of some sort, they will stick to that decision. Valerie Miller, the communications manager for the Scripps National Spelling Bee, confirmed this to Vice News shortly after this decision was made. She offered this cold comfort: “Unfortunately, this will be a tough…life lesson for these kids to learn, but all of that work will stay with them and will have lifelong benefits for them.”

My perspective

Spellers of all sorts are still reeling. I would be, too. In April of 1989, I had the studying momentum of a locomotive and enthusiasm like I had never experienced before. The national bee was my obsession. Eighth grade, with its pesky five-paragraph essays, annoying algebra assignments, and awful cliques, was a necessary evil to be tolerated. Every day, I looked forward to the time I could bond with my beloved Third New International Dictionary at home and find new lexical treasure. And at night, I would watch videos of bees and imagine myself standing at the microphone after a long day of spelling in DC, receiving my final word and pumping my fist upon nailing it and hoisting that trophy. Spelling and learning new words was my life’s meaning. If Scripps-Howard had cancelled the 1989 National Spelling Bee, I would have felt like someone had slammed me in the gut and knocked the wind out of me. And I would have been gasping for breath for months afterward.

Ironically, my victory fueled my enthusiasm for spelling after the bee was done. For a few years afterward, I still read the dictionary for fun, compiling word lists that would never be used. It was my omphaloskepsis, my navel-gazing. If the competition had been taken away, that enthusiasm would have been decimated. But it wouldn’t be extinguished outright. Scripps-Howard might have cancelled the bee, but it wouldn’t be able to take away my love of words.

Man’s Search for Meaning

One of the greatest literary works of the 20th century is Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist whose unfortunate fate was to become a concentration camp prisoner during the Holocaust. Although he survived, many members of his family did not. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl reveals that his ability to survive some of the most horrific conditions imaginable had much to do with his frame of mind. Officers beat him and his fellow prisoners mercilessly. They forced them into useless acts of menial work while providing them with a meager starvation diet. These prisoners had to exist in filthy, cramped sleeping quarters barely worthy of a jailhouse. And inevitably, many died as a result.

But Frankl realized that these officers could not take away his dignity, his sense of self-worth and hope. They could not change his outlook on life. He alone was ultimately in control of his thoughts and emotions. And he attributed his ability to survive in large part by maintaining his self-worth. But it was not easy, given the circumstances. He saw that others who lost this outlook tended to perish. The light went out in them, and once the spirit left, the body soon followed.

Unobserved accomplishments

Clearly, there is a world of difference between a concentration camp prisoner and a speller who cannot compete in a bee he or she has been preparing for for years. But the lesson from Frankl’s book is still applicable – as it is to anyone who has been struck down by a fate deemed unfair. It is not a lesson that can be absorbed and internalized quickly. But it is necessary to thrive. Even if Valerie Miller’s statement felt like a cruel blast of ice cold water at the time, it is true. Maintaining a strong sense of self-worth is necessary – and under the circumstances, these spellers have much reason to consider themselves worthy. They have put in hundreds, even thousands of hours of work in some cases attempting to conquer the English language. Their mastery exceeds most anyone’s, save that of their peers. And they have shown a dedication to work that not many students at their age have been able to demonstrate. 

George Thampy, the 2000 Scripps National Spelling Bee champion, had some sage advice for spellers in 2010 that still rings true to this day: “Your journey is just beginning. When you are at home in the coming days and weeks, reflect on your passions and what makes you tick. Then pursue them with the enthusiasm and the passion that you have proven you are capable of.” In 2020, this sentiment takes on especial import. I’d like to add to it as well.

In any year, any top speller knows that much of their work goes unrecognized. No one sees the amount of work that goes into their accomplishments. This is why making both the daytime and especially the prime time finals on ESPN is such a coveted goal; millions of viewers will get to see the spellers, even if just for a short word or two. This year, no one saw any spellers on TV demonstrating their prowess. That does not diminish what these spellers have done. It diminishes their exposure, but not their accomplishments. COVID-19 has denied them this exposure.

More than any other year, these top spellers will have to dwell on their accomplishments alone and realize just how far they have come. Without the hullabaloo, camaraderie, and excitement of Bee Week, it will take more time and effort, more meditation and introspection. It will take significant help from others – especially fellow spellers, friends, and family. But it is necessary. It may be one of the most crucial, Laocoon challenges these spellers ever confront. Indeed, it is possible, years from now, to see the would-be Scripps class of 2020 taking pride in addressing how they overcame being denied competing in the bee that never was.

Photo credit – Mark Bowen for Scripps