In Praise of Nerd-dom

(A short essay in response to the Scripps Spelling Bee…)

I love seeing the faces of the finalists in the Scripps National Spelling Bee in news reports this morning. Bafflement, beady-eyed concentration, stunned cluelessness, and triumph are all written across the faces of these adolescent nerdy types. Released from being stuffed into lockers, being pelted with dodge balls, and being exiled to the bad lunch tables, this is their moment.

I actually find it amazing that spelling bees are still part of our culture. After all, computers have programs to check our spelling, and who spells anything out in e-mail or on Twitter? Like school bake sales, home economics, and white cotton P. E. uniforms, they seem an anachronism, a throwback to a more contemplative, cerebral, Mayberry-ish time.
I had my own stab at spelling bee fame. I hail from a family of Scrabble players and word game freaks, whose biggest excitement was our weekly trip to the big blue Bookmobile that somehow made it up the hairpin curves of Lookout Mountain. One summer, just for fun (and because we didn’t have a TV) I decided to read the Funk and Wagnall’s encyclopedia. Yes, the entire set. I think I made it to “J.” So it wasn’t such a big leap for me to decide I had a chance to win our school spelling bee.

In a dizzying trajectory from classroom champ to junior high champ, I ended up at the Jefferson County bee in a room with dozens of other pointy-glasses-wearing geeks. Passing the written section and moving on to the next round, I could see my brilliant future laid out in front of me. My name would be announced over the intercom in homeroom. Maybe not for Sadie Hawkins Day Princess, but still. Even when I went down in one of the middle rounds on the word “fuchsia” I never regretted those many hours spent alone in my room with my spelling lists, or with my mom quizzing me from my dog-eared booklet of difficult words.

When the documentary Spellbound was released in 2002, I rushed out to see it with an excitement usually reserved for Clive Owen movies. Along with the eight adolescents the filmmakers followed, I experienced the ping-ponging emotions of anxiety, self-confidence, self-doubt, elation, and just plain nerves. Kind of a microcosm of life itself.

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