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The Stressful World of Adult Spelling Bees

My daughter is a seven-year-old spelling whiz. Can I hold my own in an adult bee?

Illustration: Chris Gash

Do you know how to spell the word “embarrassed”? How about “flummoxed”?

I’m sitting in a row of metal chairs crammed into the Book Cellar in Lincoln Square, anxiously awaiting my first word in the store’s seventh annual Adult Spelling Bee. The 50-person audience this September evening is filled with young studious types in hip glasses and urbane older women with short hair—exactly the group you would imagine hanging out at a bookstore on a Friday night.

Despite the credentials of my 15 fellow contestants, among whom are two librarians, a high school English teacher, and a top-five state finisher from the senior circuit, the first few words make me believe I might be able to punch above my weight.

“Mention.” “Morphine.” “Patronage.” The spellers preceding me handle these gimmes with ease. Now it’s my turn. I rise, take a breath, and gulp down a slug of beer. I glance at my wife and two daughters in the front row—my personal cheering section. But they’re not chanting my name or holding up signs that say “You’re an Awesome Speller, Dad!” Instead, my oldest, seven-year-old Josephine, is staring at me, mouth open, looking more nervous than I am.

“The word is . . . ‘perceptible,’ ” says judge James Kennedy, a shaggy-haired author of surrealistic young adult fiction. With his smart-ass personality (“Oh, that was really close,” he says sarcastically on more than a few occasions), he’s the panel’s Simon Cowell, which I guess makes poet Robbie Telfer, the more reassuring judge, Randy Jackson. Or maybe even Paula Abdul?

Shit. Does it end in “ible” or “able”? I trust my instinct and go with the former.

“I’m sorry, that is incorrect,” says Kennedy. I’m confused until I realize that while sounding out the word in my head, I inadvertently spelled it with an s instead of a c. I stand there in shame. Josephine, who placed third in last year’s first-grade spelling bee at St. Helen School, is crushed.

Such is the stress of dropping in cold to the more-intense-than-you-think-it-would-be world of adult spelling bees. I had grand plans to study practice sheets I discovered online—lists of words derived from Latin and French, frequently misused homonyms—but managed only 20 minutes of cramming with my in-house pro, Josephine, during our pregame dinner. As we sat in the courtyard at Bistro Campagne, couples at nearby tables looked at us like we were a family of intellectuals who spent our free time quizzing each other. Then my three-year-old, Gemma, blurted out that she had to go number two (but didn’t use those words) and exposed our charade.

I should have known that a grown-up spelling contest would be plenty competitive. The success of the 2002 documentary Spellbound and the annual broadcast of the Scripps National Spelling Bee on ESPN have, in recent years, popularized the battles as intellectual blood sports. It was only a matter of time before nostalgia-craving adults turned them into alcohol-fueled showcases of spelling prowess—proud nerds flipping a collective middle finger to the LOL era. “With the advent of spell check, I think it’s a badge of honor [to show you can spell],” says Suzy Takacs, the Book Cellar’s owner. “It’s a way of finding out if you’ve still got it.”

The Chipp Inn also hosts an annual adult spelling bee, but the fact that the Noble Square bar requires Jell-O shots after each round makes me suspect that the competition isn’t particularly rigorous. Even libraries acknowledge that a little liquid courage helps grownups spell words on command, with some suburban branches promoting cash bars during their events.

But the bees are about more than giving some smarty-pants a chance to tipsily show off; they also help right past wrongs. During introductions, at least five participants recall what grade they were in when a silent t ripped their heart out or the specific term that foiled them. “I didn’t realize ‘sunshiny’ was a word,” says Christie, a tatted 30ish Humboldt Park resident sitting a few seats down from me, still bitter from a middle school wound.

Personally, I don’t hold any etymological grudges—I can’t even remember if I ever participated in a spelling bee. But I do know they’re typically one-miss-and-you’re-out affairs. So I’m thankful that tonight’s rules allow a mulligan: The first three dummies who misspell a word can redeem themselves. I am the first dummy. I handle the makeup word, “personality,” and live to spell another round.

Which, unfortunately, is equally rocky. I nearly forget to include the l in “granular” but somehow right the ship just in time. By the next round, I’m feeling semiconfident. Then other spellers start dropping faster than Starks in Game of Thrones. A 50-something woman named Lauren forgets an m in “inflammation.” Irene, a creative writing instructor at the School of the Art Institute, screws up “squeezable.” Miraculously, I draw an easy one: “spacious.” Nailed it.

My good luck doesn’t last. In the fourth round, as the words get tougher, I know I’m in trouble when “bourgeoisie” trips up Judy, the 60-something ringer from the senior circuit. Then Kennedy delivers my word, which is so obscure and ridiculous that the audience laughs: “molybdenum.”

“Are you serious?” I ask him. Making matters worse, I’m distracted when I see my wife, Jen, struggling with our kids. It’s past 9 p.m., and after an hour of sitting patiently, they’re starting to melt down.

“Don’t worry, Daddy’s almost done,” I hear Jen tell Gemma.

To stall, I ask for the definition (“a metallic element that resembles chromium”), which confuses me even more. I give it my best shot—m-o-l-i-b-d-i-n-o-n—but know I’ve botched it. Disappointed, I head outside to where Jen has shuttled the girls. Both my daughters are wailing. Gemma is over it all and wants to go to the park. But Josephine is crestfallen that I lost. She later tells Jen that she doesn’t think I took the bee seriously enough and that she wishes “Dad was a lawyer.” I’m still not sure what that last part means. Does she want me to wear a suit more often?

I go back into the event and watch as Emile from Albany Park prevails by spelling “vivisepulture,” which means “the act of burying someone alive.” (A feeling I relate to after my exit.) The 44-year-old, who works for the city’s public health department, lost two years ago. Now he’s the champion, walking home with a gift basket featuring Champagne and, naturally, a 2015 Merriam-Webster dictionary.

His wife and daughter are also there, jumping out of their seats to congratulate him. It’s a heartfelt scene, maybe a touch too Rocky for my taste. But it’s nothing compared with the moment I share with Josephine when she walks up to me a few days later after dinner and offers to help me practice my spelling.

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