Last night ESPN carried the Championships of the 2013 Scripps National Spelling Bee. (It’s been on my calendar for a week!)
I can’t think of a “sports” competition that gives me as much joy and laughter as this one. The kids are typically middle-school age (though there’s no lower age limit, and this year a 10-year-old from my home town of Ankeny, Iowa, made it to the preliminaries–woo-hoo!). These kids show uncommon poise and intelligence. They goof off. They cheer each other on. They give each other standing ovations. They are funny. They laugh at the words and at themselves. They are un-self-conscious. They. are. cute.
Dr. Jacques Bailly is the official “pronouncer” of the Bee. He states each word for the competitors, and, as asked, answers questions about the definition, language of origin, and part of speech. He also provides a (frequently funny) sentence that uses the word, so the speller can hear it in context.
But I think most importantly, he is the one who puts the spellers at ease.
Now Dr. Bailly is a serious guy in his serious glasses, serious suit jacket and serious tie. (He’s a Classics professor—would you expect any less?) He has a low, calm voice with which he clearly enunciates each word—without over-enunciating or offering too much inflection as a clue to the spelling. He was the 1980 national champion, and has been the pronouncer since 2003, so Dr. Bailly knows The Bee.
But he also knows just when to give a small smile, just when to say “Hello” as the speller approaches the microphone, just when to call the speller by name. When he asked the first speller of the Finals “How are you?” she said “I’m nervous!”—but the question itself surely lessened her nervousness.
The kids obviously are the most important part of the spelling bee, but their charm is only enhanced by Dr. Bailly’s.
Sigh. Be still my heart.
And of course, congratulations to the Champion, Arvind Mahankali–he’s been a pleasure to watch the past few years!