At a recent family gathering, far-flung relatives with suspicious smiles and too much time on their hands peppered my teen-age cousin with ques-tions. "No football, no girl-friend - what do you do with all of your time?"
"Well, I placed second in the county spelling bee," was his timid reply.
Intrigued, I began my own interrogation. Is there a Millionaire clause or is the first answer always the final answer? I learned that the initial reply serves as the official attempt, so swiftness is not advantageous.
Next I discovered that, as a stalling strategy, spellers often employ the tactic of asking for the definition or origin of a word.
Digging a little deeper, I unearthed the siren's song of modern spelling bees. Why are children across the nation devoting hours each day, feverishly memorizing arcane spellings? For the same reason gym rats are shooting free throws in the Indiana snow: If they practice hard enough, they might one day get to perform on ESPN.
Envisioning a spelling bee champion being doused by a bucket of Gatorade, I asked if the Super Bowl of spelling bees televised on the sports network is a primetime event, complete with corporate sponsors and cheerleaders. My cousin, in his typically low-key manner, indicated it is a low-key affair.
My cousin didn't seem as excited as he should have been about his ascending sport, but I was flush with new questions. Just where did the name come from? By now he had lost interest in the conversation, so I logged on to the Web site of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, the most famous of the bees, which debuted in 1925.
The Scripps people, having no idea of the origin of the name, post the following disclaimer: "The word bee, as used in spelling bee, is a language puzzle that has never been satisfactorily accounted for."
I did learn, however, that a bee can end in a tie (three co-champions), and that it is an equal-opportunity sport (42 girl champions and 38 boy champions).
Soon my own interest in spelling bees waned, only to be rekindled by a chance encounter at Blockbuster. Browsing the documentary section, I noticed a flick titled "Spellbound" with a cover featuring a group of youths in various states of concentration. The description of the movie said something along the lines of: Even though this looks like the dullest documentary in the history of mankind, it's actually pretty exciting.
I was sold.
"Spellbound" starts by introducing the eight competitors, age 11 to 14, who come from various geographic locations. Some are from affluent back-grounds; others live in poverty. For the most part, the only thing they have in common is their intelligence and determination.
Training for a spelling bee is like training for any other sport, albeit in front of a computer or behind a voluminous study guide. Practice makes perfect and this requires a strict regimen of mental exercise. In a way reminiscent of Little League baseball, some parents prodded their children to perform at impossibly high levels, while others are content that their kids have found an activity they enjoy.
As the documentary progresses to the actual competition, held in Washington, D.C., the intensity rises dramatically. Spellers are given insanely difficult words, and if they miss just one, they're sent packing. Having watched the subjects of the documentary bare their souls in the first segment, one is hard put not to root for them as they take their place behind the microphone.
The contestant I was pulling for makes it several rounds before committing an error ... and just like that, his spelling bee career is over (this is his last year of eligibility).
After two harrowing days, the field is slowly whittled down, and then, with the bright lights of ESPN shining, the winner is crowned.
The winning word? Logorrhea. I am familiar with the word, but would have no clue how to spell it without a dictionary.
Although I probably won't be getting season tickets to spelling bees any time soon, I found the subject matter to be quite entertaining. I visited a world I was completely unfamiliar with and found a new sense of appreciation for my cousin's endeavors.