There was quite a bit of sweating and crying going on during the National Spelling Bee finals today. Not so much among the contestants—they mostly were calm and composed. I was the one with jangling nerves and teary eyes during the competition.
I’d never watched the National Spelling Bee before. I needed some mindless TV entertainment to pay bills by, so I channel-surfed my way to ESPN. It took me a long time to write the checks once I got hooked on the highly mindful spelling competition. I couldn’t take my eyes off of the children who strode one by one up to the front of the stage and confidently tackled words that I had never even heard of, much less spelled.
You need to know your Latin, Greek, and French roots to be a champion speller, that’s for sure. Otherwise, the finalists had diverse spelling styles. Some would scribble out the word on a placard hanging around their neck before saying their final answer. Others would simply look into the distance and spell a word letter by letter, visualizing it mentally rather than physically.
The top three spellers apparently were all ethnic Indians, at least in part: Anurag Kashyap spelled “appoggiatura” correctly to become the champion (it means “an embellishing note or tone”). Samir Sudhir Patel missed a letter in “roscian” (“skilled in acting”) and earned second place. A girl, Aliya Robin Deri, flamed out on “trouvaille” (“a lucky find”), one of the few champion-level words that I actually knew how to spell myself.
The CNN article above has a “test your spelling skills” link where you can get a mild taste for the competition. Mild, because you’re presented with four alternative spellings for a word that you’re given the phonetic pronunciation and definition for, and merely have to choose the correct one. I got nine out of ten correct, uttering a coarse expletive when I missed #10 and my chance to “rule the hive.”
By contrast, Anurag, Samir, and Aliya were perfectly courteous whether in victory or defeat. These are three hugely impressive children, as were the rest of the contestants. And again, all Indian.
I mention their ethnicity not because it has anything to do with being a champion speller (though perhaps it does), but to contrast what I saw on the stage of the National Spelling Bee with the America that I earlier saw William Simon (a conservative who ran for governor of California in 2002) expounding on C-Span.
Simon was giving some sort of Heritage Foundation talk, judging by the banner hanging behind his podium. He was blathering on, as is his wont, about how the United States is a Christian nation, with 90% of our citizens believing in Jesus. Simon said that religion (Christianity, obviously) should be taught in schools because it is so obviously part of our culture.
A Pakistani audience member rose and told Simon that he couldn’t believe in Christ, but that the Koran contained many references to Jesus and Mary. He wondered what sort of place he had in America, given Simon’s remarks.
It was interesting to see how William Simon changed his tune when faced with a real live non-Christian standing before him, rather than with merely his own abstract political/theological notions. Here he was, having to answer an obviously intelligent, concerned, caring person who didn’t believe how he did.
Simon said that everybody had a right to their own faith or lack of faith, but that 90% of Americans believed in a higher power. A few minutes before it was “in Jesus;” now it was “in a higher power.” Such is the slipperiness of politicians confronted with their own bigotry and desiring to appear more broad-minded than they really are.
I didn’t see any religion displayed on the stage of the National Spelling Bee. Why would I? It didn’t have any place there. Nor does it in our public schools, except in an educational sense. Children should learn about religions in the classroom; but they shouldn’t practice religion in the classroom.
About 74% of the people of India are Hindu; 12% are Muslim; 6% are Christian. Probably the breakdown of Indians living in the United States is around the same, which means that it is highly unlikely that the three spelling champions I watched on ESPN today all believe in Jesus. Yet William Simon and other Christian-right zealots want to have Christianity become the state religion and be practiced openly in the classroom.
Observing the intelligence, poise, and character of Anurag, Samir, and Aliya today, what I want taught in the classroom is what they have learned. It doesn’t have anything to do with religion; it has everything to do with realizing the full potential of being human.
William Simon has much to learn in this regard. Those three children could teach him a lot.