Tuesday, March 4, 2003

Removing the sting from Bees

When Miss Spur, the meanest teacher in my school, first told us about the spelling bee, it sounded harmless. A bee. I loved bees. Quilting bees. Opie's Aunt Bee. Honey.But Miss Spur - and this was her specialty - reminded us of the sting.

We lined up at the chalk board, our sweaty little hands clasped behind our backs. And when we misspelled a word, she retired us with a look of disgust that confirmed what we already were thinking. Can you spell L-O-S-E-R?

I don't remember what word sent me back to my desk. But I'm pretty sure it wasn't lycanthrope (a werewolf, as everybody knows) or prairillon (a small prairie, you dunderhead), words that have tormented spellers who made it to the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee. I probably blew it by not putting enough consonants in accommodate. Or too many in personnel.

Rookie mistakes.

Cut to the chase

Paige Kimble, director of the National and 1981 champ herself, says memory alone won't win it. "You have to know the Latin and Greek roots, the way words come together." Phat chance.

We're in the midst of Bee season right now. Thursday, Batesville Middle School eighth-grader Jorie Moss won the Cincinnati Post's regional competition. The finals will be March 26 at Museum Center, and Scripps' grand finale will be this spring in Washington. If you're really curious, you could sit through 20,000 preliminary bees involving about 10 million children.

Or you can cut to the chase, Hollywood style.

Jeffrey Blitz's documentary, Spellbound, nominated for an Academy Award, stars eight kids competing for the national prize of $10,000 in 1999. Jeff says it will be re-released at the end of April. Watch for it.

It's fascinating. Dramatic. You've got pushy parents, although not as many as you'd think. Most looked a little dazed, dragged along by their over-achieving kids. Angela Arenivar of Perryton, Texas, whose ranch-hand father speaks not a word of English, was tutored by a teacher who thinks she's special. Ditto Ashley White, from the projects in Washington, D.C. She is, according to her teacher, "the full package, a perfect all-around child."

Ordinary, decent

At the head of the class in Spellbound was another teacher, University of Dayton professor of English Alex Cameron. Pronouncer for the National Bee since 1980, he was smitten by "simply the most exciting language in the world." And he loved the Bee. After Columbine, he said it was reassurance "that in the middle of chaos, there exist ordinary families and decent people and hardworking kids."

Dr. Cameron died last week of a heart attack. Jeff Blitz calls his movie "part of Alex's legacy." I hope Jeff wins an Oscar March 23, but he's up against Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine. It's about guns, of course, not bowling. And Jeff's movie is about teachers and kids, not spelling. It's just the right memorial to Dr. Cameron, the teacher who conveyed by his bearing, by his reassuring bulk, by his benign smile that the kids were winners.

Or at least not losers.

E-mail lpulfer@enquirer.com or phone 768-8393.

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