Friday, February 22

A Funny Story From Our First Spelling Bee

My son participated in his first spelling bee this year, making it to the finals of his school and then filling in for the champ at the Duval County written spelling bee, which he did well enough on to get to be one of the 26 finalists. That's pretty cool, and it's further than I ever got in a spelling bee, even though I was pretty good at spelling. Just not in front of people. The event itself was an interesting experience, and one that's as much a lesson for parents as the kids. Problem is that not all the parents learn the lesson, apparently.





The spelling bee took place at a local high school, which is probably fairly typical, so if your kid makes it to the final round, that's where it will likely be. Prior to the contests (one written and then this oral one), we were provided with an initial list of words that didn't help much for the written test, though it does seem as if most of these words were used on the finalists. That's an important item to note, as it means the kids have had the opportunity to study at least some of the words being used. My son had seen the word he missed, and he spelled it correctly a couple weeks earlier. I blame myself a bit there, since I went and downloaded a list of words for him to study that had nothing to do with the list being used--just stick with the official company and its list if you're looking to study.

The high school that hosted the event had a nice-looking auditorium. However, the acoustics were horrendous. Since it's not like a huge crowd shows up for these events, I'd recommend using a library rather than an auditorium. A public library might even provide a nice Duval Schools outreach event. I used to run a talent show for many years for the high school at which I taught, and we used the library very successfully until the event grew too big. But I also made sure that when we transitioned to the auditorium, the acoustics were acceptable, since the talent show was at least partially about reading poetry. The main problem in the spelling bee case was the fact that the microphones were awful, and it was just hard to hear in the nearly-empty auditorium.

But hold on a second, since it took a good 20 minutes just to get into the actual spelling bee itself. We were introduced to the local celebrity judge panel, all of whom had a full bio read to the audience. We were introduced to the organizers. We were introduced to the principal of the school. We watched as the main organizer was thanked and received a token of appreciation, etc. And then we were introduced to each and every kid. None of that's a big problem, and after the first round, I understand why it was done early on (most families of kids who missed the first word left at that point, including us). This extended introduction provided the opportunity for someone, anyone, to notice how poorly the microphone setup was in order to provide a solution. Instead, we trudged on.

When the word reader person was introduced as a native of Georgia, I wondered whether my kid (a native of Wisconsin) would be able to understand what she was saying, but it wasn't really about that in the end. I knew it was going to be a struggle when she first grabbed the mic and the audience was treated to just about the worst microphone feedback in the history of bad sound hookups. Here's the science-y reason why from Science ABC:
To put it in simple words, feedback is a high-pitched sound that comes out of speakers when something about the arrangement or the calibration of the audio system is not suitable for the desired setting.
Testing a system out before the event is usually a good idea. Based on the number of problems with people hearing the speakers, I'd say the stage crew at this local high school had never worked on a spelling bee before. The person reading the words (who we'd learned earlier loves her pets and walks on the beach) was sitting down in front of the stage, and her positioning might have been in the wrong location relative to the speakers.

This is how I'd assess the general sound requirements of a spelling bee: the kids need to understand the words coming out of the word giver's mouth. If that means the parents not hearing everything or the students standing right next to the reader, then so be it. Instead, it seemed important for the parents to hear all. It was also apparently important for parents to understand all kinds of rules when it came to them filing a protest, which I thought was just a formality. Apparently not.

So the deal was that none of the kids could hear this speaker all that well. She had a little bit of an accent. The venue was not the best, but it was fair because everyone had to deal with it. My son claimed after his misspelling that he thought he heard a different word, but that word did not exist nor was it on his list. So he imagined a different word. And he might not have been alone. A few kids confidently spelled their words wrong, while others asked for more details about the word before messing up the spelling. But only one kid was the "rivulet" kid. And only one family failed its kid in that first round.

Like I said, everyone had the list. Rivulet, or maybe rivulets, was on the list. I remembered it when I heard our word mistress say it. Riv-u-let. The speller, who seemed to be even more socially awkward than the average spelling bee kid, needed it again. And again. Over and over. Definitions, origins, used in a sentence. Pronounced again, etc. He just refused to spell anything because he could not figure out what exactly he was hearing. Again, everyone had the same woman speaking, and everyone had access to the same list of words. But we all had to feel bad for this kid for nearly 10 minutes. I'm not lying; it felt more like 10 hours. Finally, he said the word and spelled it incorrectly. A collective feeling of relief followed from all of the parents who still had kids in the contest. At least that kid would be out of it.

But wait, the kid who obviously had not studied the list, couldn't figure out the word, refused to give it a shot, nearly started crying in front of the whole room, and failed in a way that no kid wants to fail, got a reprieve. His parents were the only ones who successfully challenged the ruling, rewarding the Rivulet Kid with another chance to embarrass himself. The only kid to advance to the second round without even spelling a word correctly. Obviously, the rule should be that he'd have to spell something correctly. He didn't even spell an actual word. After 10 minutes and a couple dozen repeats of the word, he chose to spell a word that did not exist. If he'd spelled amulet or river inlet or livery, I'd have had some compassion for the kid.

I have to admit I felt anger that Rivulet Kid's parents protested and won. I even said it out loud, not caring that they sat a few feet away. It was as easy a word as anyone had in the first round. Everyone was dealing with the same audio problems and the same Southern Drawl from the same speaker. Everyone had the same list to study or not study.  But this kid was allowed to continue. The squeaky wheel getting the grease, once again.

Don't get me wrong, I'd rather deal with parents who want their kids to succeed than parents who just want to blame teachers for their kids' failure, but when parents who want their kids to succeed ALSO blame the teachers, that's a disaster. All the other kids who missed their first round words were sad, though (I hope) supported by their families. Those kids were allowed to fail, since we all could have complained about the acoustics. The problem is that we all had to explain to our children why Rivulet Kid was allowed to keep going. I just told my son it was because his parents were jackasses.

In all, my kid wanted to win, even though he got bounced in the first round. I told him that if he really wants to win next year, it will take some dedication to learning words that no one cares about, like rivulet. However, and this is important, I told him that he would never be getting a protest from us in order to make up for his deficiencies. We don't make excuses to his teachers at school, we don't hound his coaches for more playing time, and we don't try to force people to let him win when he's lost.


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