Sports

The Oddly Addictive Spectacle Of The National Spelling Bee

Emily Fletcher agonizes over spelling a word at the Scripps National Spelling Bee

The National Spelling Bee: Here, Emily Fletcher sweats her way through her turn. Alex Wong/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Alex Wong/Getty Images

Tonight, ABC will broadcast the finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee from 8:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m., giving a bunch of school-age kids a slice of Thursday-night prime time of the type usually reserved for people like Tina Fey.

Spelling bees have made enormous gains in pop-culture significance in the last, say, ten years. Or maybe it's 12 years, because the first big spelling-bee splash of my lifetime came in 1997, when the utterly unique Rebecca Sealfont spelled "euonym" to win the Bee. Everybody was talking about Rebecca, and this was before the Internet was what it is today, and before there was YouTube to show her to you.

Since then, we've had the wonderful documentary Spellbound, the hokey but endearing Akeelah And The Bee, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee on Broadway, and much, much more.

And now, we've reached the point where ESPN will be showing the national semifinals at 10:00 a.m., followed by the prime-time telecast hosted by my hands-down favorite TV host, Tom Bergeron (who usually handles things over at Dancing With The Stars).

And there are good reasons to tune in.

"Very, very bright and unusual," after the jump...

The Bee is deeply strange in some ways — you're not seeing kids demonstrate that they spell well in real life as much as you are seeing them perform an advanced academic trick. To compete at the national level, these kids first both memorize vast internal databases of words and learn a tremendous amount about word roots and origins and about various languages that might provide the origins of English words.

I love the Bee, even though I rarely recognize the words and I often wouldn't spell them correctly even if given several tries. There's just something so compelling about the effort...the worry, the sweat, the opportunity to be famous for knowing things.

The kids who get the most attention tend to be the most unusual ones — the ones who, like Sealfon, have unusual tics and rituals — tapping their feet, tracing letters on their palms, or whispering into their hands. But lots of them aren't like that. Lots of them are just ordinary, adorably nervous thirteen-year-olds.

But in some way, they're all offbeat, just for wanting to spend this much time learning Latin roots. Sealfon's own father wonderfully called her "very, very bright and unusual" just after she won.

There aren't a lot of televised triumphs available for kids who are very, very bright and unusual, and that's part of what makes the Bee mesmerizing. Television will show you lots of kids who are attractive and conventionally cute, and from time to time, it will show you the ones who are good at sports. But very, very bright and unusual?

The best chance to see that in prime time comes once a year, and tonight's the night.

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