February 1, 2023



Covid-19 dashed my National Spelling Bee dream, but there’s still time to make it right | Sport

3 min read

Ding. When the bell rang after I misspelled tettigoniid, I was heartbroken. After 15 grueling rounds of spelling, broadcast nationally in prime time, one letter vanquished me. The eight remaining contestants were crowned co-champions. I was declared runner-up. My mom asked if I wanted to train another full year until the next bee. I said yes. I wanted to try one last time. Now, my resolve to win has been replaced by profound disappointment.

Covid-19 has changed everyone’s lives. Health concerns and tragedies are headlines. Kids attend school remotely. Until recently, I was, like other eighth-grade spellers, at home studying constantly, preparing for my final chance at the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Scripps ended that dream when it cancelled 2020’s Bee and denied eighth-graders an extension of eligibility.

My spelling journey has been rewarding, but it wasn’t finished. Like highly-trained athletes we admire, I work tirelessly at my craft. I don’t hit a ball or run fast, but I spend hours daily working on language patterns and etymology – anything that could be a clue on how words are spelled.

My training schedule resembled most athletes’. I got up at 5am every day to study and stayed up past 11.30pm sometimes, learning innumerable words and roots. I trained on holidays and weekends. I skipped parties. I sacrificed most of my recreational time. Many other eighth-grade spellers did these things, too. We love spelling and poured our effort into one more shot at victory. Spelling has given me confidence, knowledge and a soupçon of celebrity.

I’m not the most popular girl at school. But during last year’s finals, people from across the country tweeted about me! After the Bee concluded last year, people I didn’t know would recognize me in public. When I passed little kids at school, they would exclaim, “Look! It’s Simone!” It was wonderful. I was an example for them. In the future, some of them might participate in the Bee. Eighth-grade spellers like me show younger kids that persistence pays off.

Scripps’ decision was devastating. I had expected that even if the Bee was cancelled, eligibility would be extended, as with Olympic and NCAA athletes. The International Olympic Committee and NCAA decided that since Covid-19 cancelled athletes’ events due to no fault of the athletes’, they should be given another chance to compete.

Shouldn’t eighth-graders have the same chance to train, compete, and demonstrate that academic pursuits are as important as athletics? Or are we being taught that athletics will always trump other, less popular activities, even in the age of Covid-19?

Scott and Simone

Scott and Simone have invested hundreds of hours in preparing for her final National Spelling Bee. Photograph: Scott Remer

Scott Remer, Simone’s coach

As Simone’s routine illustrates, serious spellers invest hundreds of hours into preparing. Spellers are “word detectives” – they analyze a word’s etymology and definition; assemble and evaluate possible spellings; and decide their spelling. In our weekly sessions, I quiz Simone on words I’ve selected to test her pattern recognition and root knowledge. When she makes a mistake, we examine it to understand what happened and what she can learn.

Once the Bee stings you, there’s no going back. It’s a heady combination – the thrill of competition, camaraderie with fellow logophiles, and the frisson from piecing together an etymological puzzle. The night I placed fourth in 2008 was among the happiest of my life to date. It would be unjust to deny spellers like Simone the chance to claim the trophy because of a crisis for which she bears no responsibility.

Scripps doesn’t have to deny Simone and other eighth-graders one last shot. They could grant a one-time exception for eighth-graders to compete as ninth-graders. They could hold two bees next year – one for kids who qualified in 2020, and another for 2021. Or they could hold a bee exclusively for 2020 eighth-graders and a bee as usual for 2021 spellers. Scripps has changed the Bee before – the RSVBee invitational program for spellers in areas without local competitions is one example of innovation to the contest’s format.

There will be logistical complexities – Scripps mentioned a “complex mix of logistical factors” in an explanation of their decision. But Simone and I believe Scripps has the organizing chops and love of the Bee to overcome those hurdles. If you’d like to add your voice to the group of people asking Scripps to extend eighth-graders’ eligibility, please sign the petition here.

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