Alone in the spotlight: What young spellers face

June 04, 2004

Did you know that the word "oligodactylism" means a deficiency of fingers or toes?

We'd bet most people don't. But confronted with an unfamiliar word, most people would be able to look it up.

Not the participants in the Scripps National Spelling Bee. They must spell each word from memory, or use their knowledge of language to puzzle out whatever odd word they've been assigned to spell.

Thirteen-year-old Blaine Ford on Boonsboro knew that "dactyl" meant finger or toe, but didn't know the longer word. He forged on anyway, and his version - "aligodactylism" was only one letter off.

Missing that one letter eliminated him from the bee's first oral round because, unlike other competitions, only perfection will do.

Imagine if they ran baseball games like a spelling bee. An infielder who bobbled a ground ball or a batter who struck out would be out of the game. For them, there would be no next inning.


And what if the working world worked that way, and one mistake on the job meant you were fired? There would be no second chances, no starting fresh again tomorrow, but just a pink slip and an escort to the parking lot.

We use these examples, ridiculous as they are, to make a point. For anyone who has not seen a spelling bee in person, it is quite an experience.

While an audience watches, the speller is called to the microphone and given a word to spell. Though he or she may ask some questions - the word's definition or its language origin - there comes a time when the spelling must begin.

At that point, there is no consulting with coaches or teammates. Guessing is allowed, but if the guess is wrong and the judges say "incorrect," then the speller must leave the competition.

For many years, The Herald-Mail has sponsored the local bee - and sent the winner to the nationals - because we believe spelling is an important skill. But participating in a bee also teaches young people how to compete, and how to handle defeat in an event in which there can only be one winner.

To Blaine Ford, we offer our congratulations for his performance. We know it won't be the last time this bright young man will do something great.

The Herald-Mail Articles