A lot of people were happy last weekend because the Wellfleet OysterFest was back after two festless pandemic years — and I was one of them. It meant that I was able to preside for the 17th time at the Wellfleet library’s OysterFest Spelling Bee.
In the age of spellcheck, one could argue that spelling bees are obsolete. But people have been saying that for years about print newspapers, and I’m here to tell you that papers and bees are both alive and well. And they are fun — or, at least, they ought to be. Although our daughter Montana Miller, a professor of popular culture at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, says in the big time they’re not.
She tells me that the Scripps National Spelling Bee, with a TV audience of 7.5 million this year, has a dark side: overzealous parents driving their kids mercilessly to be champion spellers on one hand, and social-media bullies attacking the winners, who often come from South Asian families, with racist insults on the other.
“I suspect they bring out the worst in grown-ups,” says Montana. Spelling bees, she says, “have scarred kids with memories of embarrassing screw-ups on stage in front of their peers and anxious parents.” (Incidentally, when people ask her if she was born in Montana, she tells them “No, I was born in Massachusetts, but my parents couldn’t spell that.”)
There have been a few amusing flubs at the OysterFest bee over the years, like the time my friend Nicholas was bounced because he misspelled “champagne” — a product I know he knows well. And there was the time a woman cried foul when she lost on “bouillabaisse,” claiming that it wasn’t an English word and shouldn’t count.
I try every year to remind contestants that being a good speller doesn’t necessarily indicate anything about how smart or good a person you are, and the whole point is having fun. But the thrill of spelling a tricky word correctly on the stage is hard to beat. The victories are memorable. I remember the year that a 13-year-old triumphantly won the Quahogs Round (age 13 and up) by spelling “aphrodisiac.”
This year the winning words were “turtle” for the Littlenecks (age 12 and under) and “riparian” for the Quahogs. The fun in it for spellers in our kind of bee is in wracking their brains for the right answer. Or making clever guesses.
Anika Valli, a Wellfleet ninth-grader, made it all the way to the eighth round of the adult competition by correctly spelling “pompano,” a word she had never heard before. (It’s a fish.) Then she missed “roughy” (another fish), guessing that it was spelled “roughie.”
Jennifer Subrin, who tied for second place in the Quahogs, had three or four false starts trying to remember how to spell “beluga” before getting it right. Then she bombed out on “peninsula.”
Sorry, Anika and Jennifer. See you next year.