When I first heard that the National Spelling Bee being broadcast on ESPN it bothered me for vague reasons I really couldn’t define. It’s turning a kids’ event into a major spectacle complete with sponsors and graphics and fanfare, but then I have a hard time figuring out what’s wrong with that. By next year the finalists will be wearing STP stickers on their backs and the year after that there will be allegations of doping and the year after that there will be a special bonus round where the kids spell in cuneiform but that’s the way all these things go regardless of whether the participants are nine or nineteen or ninety, although it’s going to be pretty hard to catch anyone in a doping scandal at ninety because everybody’s on medication at that point so there’s no way of knowing who has an edge in the nonagenarian triathlon (bicycling, swimming, telling those damn kids to get off your lawn).
Several years ago a friend asked me, “When you see a child what do you think?” And I said I think about how many changes I’ve seen in my lifetime, not to mention the changes my parents and grandparents saw and I wonder what changes that child will see. It’s a sobering fact that the twentieth century alone saw more dramatic changes in technology than any of the previous centuries combined, even though humans themselves have remained the same. This does not make me afraid of the future. It makes me terrified of the future, but then I take a breath and settle down and remember that fear is sometimes rational and sometimes it isn’t and I shouldn’t worry about not being able to tell the difference, but that’s another story.
The pressure kids are put under when they participate in an internationally broadcast spelling bee may seem like an odd thing for me to fret about since my wife and I don’t have any kids in the spelling bee since our kids all have four legs and don’t compete in spelling bees. Although they have academic talents, including remarkable spelling abilities when it comes to words like “supper” or “cookie” their major achievements are athletic, but that’s another story. And I do have a vested interest in other peoples’ kids because they’re the ones who will program the robots that manage my nursing home.
The only potential downside to a kids’ spelling bee being treated as a really big deal I can think of is that kids will feel they’ve peaked early, that one day when they see their peers competing in the nonagenarian triathlon they’ll look back on the spelling bee and think of that as the highlight of their life with the intervening decades being one steady decline. And while there are child prodigies who burned out early there are others who went on to lead happy, productive lives outside of the spotlight. Adults can put an unfair amount of pressure on kids but it would be just as unfair to deny a kid with the talent and the desire the chance to excel at something because of the mere possibility that they might someday wish they’d had a “normal” childhood. And while all the kids who’ve competed in the spelling bee, or anything else, deserve credit for trying at least broadcasting the event will give the finalists—all the finalists and not just the winner—a chance in the spotlight. They’ll all be recognized for exceptionally hard work, and that recognition has the potential to inspire other kids to try amazing things which alleviates my fears about the future somewhat.
If nothing else the kids programming the robots that manage my nursing home will know how to spell.