When school district officials canceled their annual spelling bee, what emerged was an eight letter word for controversy — b-r-o-u-h-a-h-a.
Suddenly, local newspapers started receiving letters urging a reversal of the decision. Talk radio picked up the story, and school and community leaders got phone calls and e-mails.
“I was surprised by all the attention,” said new schools superintendent John Tindall Gibson, who soon reinstated the bee.
But national educators and spelling bee coordinators weren’t. They said the mini-outcry was another example of the popularity of bees, which have expanded substantially over the past decade and have been celebrated in film, television, books and theater.
Contest, teaching tool, or both?
“They’re like apple pie in America,” said Paige Kimble, director of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, the nation’s largest and most prestigious bee. “Bees are just part of the school experience.”
The Lincoln School Committee dropped the bee initially because of concerns that it was damaging to children who lost and it did not meet the goals of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Parents argued that the bee taught good study habits and provided students who might not excel in sports or theater a place to shine in front of their peers.
Many people in education agree, which may be contributing to the bee’s sustained growth despite budget woes that have landed many extracurricular activities on the chopping block.
National bee surging in popularity
“Spelling bees can boost self-esteem and help students reach high standards,” said Ed Walsh, deputy press secretary at the U.S. Department of Education. “We want schools to incorporate creative ways to teach students.”
The 78th annual National Spelling Bee, which will take place in Washington from May 31 to June 2, will have more participants than ever. At least 271 children from all 50 states and several other countries are expected to attend.
Kimble said that since the 1980s, participation has more than doubled in the national bee. She credits the popularity to its competitiveness, human drama and unpredictability.
“It makes me feel proud,” said Adelaine Arias, 13, of Providence. Arias, who speaks Spanish at home, represented Springfield Middle School in the Rhode Island statewide spelling bee this month. “Even if you don’t win, you’ve learned a lot.”
A sport like no other
The English language, with its complex word construction and bendable rules, makes spelling particularly difficult, Kimble said. “All it takes is one letter and you’re out,” she said. “There’s nothing like it in sport.”
That drama was a big reason why ESPN began to air the national competition live in 1994. Kimble credits the sports network’s decision to boosting the bee’s popularity.
“It got the ball rolling,” Kimble said.
Since then, spelling bees have been the focus of the Academy Award-nominated documentary “Spellbound” and the current off-Broadway musical hit “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”
Hollywood sees big d-r-a-m-a
Bees are also the subject of two movies expected to be released later this year. One, based on the best-selling novel “Bee Season,” stars Richard Gere. The other, titled “Akeelah and the Bee,” stars Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne and tells the story of an inner-city girl’s journey to the national bee.
ESPN spokesman Mac Nwulu said the appeal of bees is obvious: competition.
“It was reality television before you really saw reality television,” he said. “These kids come from all walks of life, and they have great spirit.”
For example, Nwulu asked, who can forget 13-year-old Rebecca Sealfon of New York City exuberantly spelling the word that earned her a National Spelling Bee victory in 1997? The home-schooled girl screeched each vowel and consonant in the word “euonym,” then pumped her fists in the air and screeched again.
“It’s your best, unscripted moments,” Nwulu said.