Prologue to American Bee:
As I traveled around the country, talking with the many people I spoke with to report the story of the National Bee, I was often asked: “What made you want to write a book about the spelling bee?” The question was usually asked with great politeness, but with no small wonder, as if to inquire: That’s an odd topic you have there, fellow. What gives?
It’s a reasonable question, and it certainly deserves an answer. I have to confess, though, that I usually gave an abbreviated version of what drew me to the story. To give a full account would have required me to hold forth for several minutes. And at the end of such a lengthy monologue, I feared, some of the questioners might have suggested I sit quietly while they fetch a cool drink of water.
Still, the query calls for a full response, and now is the time. So if you’ll grant me just a few minutes—and yes, I have a glass of cool water at hand—I’ll tell you why I feel it’s important that there be a book about the Bee.
The story of the National Spelling Bee is many stories in one.
It’s a sports story of sorts, with all the drama of a high- stakes athletic contest. (In fact, the cable TV channel ESPN broadcasts the Bee alongside sporting events like boxing and basketball.) The contestants win or lose—no second chance—in real time, onstage in front of a live audience. Each year, from a starting pool of 10 million kids, spellers compete their way upward in city and regional bees, hoping to become one of the 275 or so who makes it to Washington. The story of how these 275 finalists find one champion has as much narrative drive, as much sweat and tears and joy, as any football or baseball game. (More so, actually—but that’s just my personal opinion.)
It’s a story of pure Americana, part Norman Rockwell, part Horatio Alger. The Bee is an egalitarian gathering in which kids from every social class compete in a true meritocracy. A window washer’s daughter competes with a banker’s son; a first- generation Korean goes toe-to-toe with a Mayflower descendent. Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free: Every year, the audience is sprinkled with immigrant parents, mothers and fathers who speak in a thick accent, watching their children compete in a second language—the event, like the arms of Lady Liberty, is open to all. In the most idealistic American tradition, the Bee offers a level playing field, in which color of skin and your last name mean nothing, but hard work and belief in self mean everything.