I did not win the 2000 South Carolina State Spelling Bee. I lost to a home schooled kid who asked for a definition and a use-it-in-a-sentence-please for every single word. He went to Washington D.C. and I went back to my fifth grade classroom, where I kept my eyes firmly focused on the grainy gray carpet as a bunch of catty ten-year-old voices asked, “Why didn’t you win?”
I haven’t thought about spelling bees in a long time. But when I wrote a preview of Appalachian’s production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” I knew I was going. The whole spelling bee thing is crazy, honestly. It’s a bunch of adults putting a bunch of kids onstage and telling them that if they miss one letter they lose. Try dealing with that in an emotionally stable way at 10 years old.
I wanted to see if “Putnam County” got it right. And in a lot of ways, it did. Here are five things the production – a Tony winner described by The Washington Post as “a letter-perfect sendup” – understood about spelling bees (and life).
5. Two types of kids compete in spelling bees
Sure, everyone who signs up for a spelling bee has their own distinct reasons for being there, but I can promise that every kid in every bee fits into one of two types: they’re a reader or an overachiever.
The overachiever is there to win, and they don’t know the words naturally. They’ve studied them every night in the handbook they received when they won their district or county’s bee. Their parents have quizzed them relentlessly on the spelling, syntax, meaning and pronunciation of “xenobombulate,” and they’ll know every word in the handbook until the day they die. If they come across a word that wasn’t in the book, though, they’re done.
The other type of spelling bee kid is the overachiever’s polar opposite – they’re a reader. This was my type. We readers glanced over the top of The Chronicles of Narnia long enough to roll our eyes at the spelling handbooks we were given, then didn’t think about them again until we were standing at the microphone. Readers stumble more often than their counterparts, but unlike the overachievers they can spell words they’ve never heard. Readers are intimately acquainted with the language and the way it works.
“Putnam County” gets this and takes it a step further. Here, the archetypes are divided and characterized further – there’s a dictionary-reading overachiever and a science-geek overachiever; an attention-deficit reader and a curious-about-the-world reader. For someone who recognizes all of these types, it adds a nice dimension to the show.
4. A spelling bee is the most life-changing unimportant thing you’ll ever do
I thought the mood of the entire show really nailed this paradox.When you’re competing in a spelling bee, you feel mature and cultured and apprehensive and hugely important. You’ve been asked to show off how smart or inadequate you are in front of a crowd of people, and that’s a heady thing for someone who just hit double digits. But the thing is, you’re also just a kid spelling words into a microphone. No one really cares. “Putnam County” projects that disparity really well by contrasting its soaring musical numbers with a re-purposed high school gym and an uninterested, roped-in judge.
3. Smart people are mean to other smart people
All we ever see in movies are bullied nerds, harassed into humiliation by kids with more muscle than mind. That ignores an important fact of life: smart people are really, really mean to 0ther smart people. And bullying is often worse when your attacker has the mental acuity to hit you where it really hurts.
You have to remember that every kid in a spelling bee is there because they won another spelling bee. There’s a progression to these things. Every participant thinks they’re incomparably brilliant and have accomplished more in their 10 years of life than every other kid in the room.
“Putnam County” winks at this egotism throughout, most satisfyingly in the song performed each time a participant is disqualified.
“Goodbye, goodbye. You were good, but not good enough.” The glee on those kids’ faces, their absolute joy at another’s inadequacy, will be familiar to every bright kid who’s ever lived.
2. Tough times spark true confessions
Okay, this is not something I dealt with in my spelling bee experience. But it’s something I’ve learned in other times of stress and academic pressure: You learn more about yourself when times are bad than you do when times are good.
Outwardly, “Putnam County” is all snark and humor. But as the kids are eliminated one by one, their confessions and revelations get deeper.
One participant is a reader in a family of overachievers and has always been counted out before he’s even in the race. A runner-up who makes it to the bee more or less by accident, his near-success convinces him that he is intelligent (and worthwhile) after all. Another competitor is the son of parents who “hate losers” and another read the dictionary in her quiet, child-averse home.
The most affecting revelation for me was that of the character Olive, whose mother has been away in an Indian ashram for months. A song toward the end of the show reveals that the mother is clinically depressed.
“Darling, if you should feel my gloom,” she sings, “blame it on me.”
A high-pressure setting provided ‘Putnam County’ with a unique opportunity to find depth in humor – that’s a lot like life, if you ask me.
1. Things usually turn out okay
This was a big one for me. I know I said I haven’t thought about the spelling bee thing in a while, and I haven’t. But I can’t say it wasn’t disappointing to see that nameless, overzealous kid taking something I was passionate about. Losing the state spelling bee was really the first time I ever failed, and that leaves a mark on someone.
“Putnam County” ended with a silly, heartwarming look at the participants’ lives years later. When the cast sang the final song – “It was a very nice beginning” – I couldn’t help but smile.
I don’t know what that kid who beat me does these days. But I know what I do: I spell for a living.
It was a nice beginning for me, too.