NO, WE'RE NOT talking about the menu at a multi-ethnic cafe, but the words presented to contestants in the National Spelling Bee held in Washington last week. Some of us still feel queasy remembering the tension of these contests in fifth grade. "Boys against the blackboard, girls line up by the windows" was the opening line that brought knots to stomach and sweat to palms. Slinking back to one's seat after flubbing "cemetery" or "resistance" was a humiliation of monumental proportion to the juvenile psyche. One can only admire the studious and engaging youngsters who had the nerve to take on this challenge in a crowded ballroom before anxious parents, teachers, well-wishers and a battery of television cameras and klieg lights.
And the words! If you think you're special because you can remember some of the exceptions to the "i before e" rule by muttering "Neither foreign sovereign seized the heifer on the weird heights," try "heuristic," "anorthopia" or "stichometry." Not to mention the foreign words that seem to crop up with increasing frequency in the national contest. Almost any American child can spell "pizza," and a boy from Brooklyn was fortunately given the word "strudel," which shouldn't be much of a challenge to any New Yorker. But how many 8th-graders in Alamogordo, N.M., break the PB&J habit with an occasional dish of ratatouille? This year's champion speller, 14-year-old Blake Giddens, spelled that word as well as "Purim," a Hebrew word whose meaning was probably as unfamiliar to him as the Yiddish "yenta" was to the child who missed it. One of the most poignant stories to come out of the months-long contest was that of a young Cambodian girl who spoke not a word of English four years ago. She reached the state finals in Tennessee but missed on "enchilada."
This year's contest also demonstrated that some American kids have more than grace under pressure and a good brain. Integrity was the quality displayed by 13-year-old Andrew Flosdorf of Fonda, N.Y. Andrew was asked to spell "echolalia"-- don't ask us, go look it up. The judges and the audience thought he had spelled it correctly, but he realized that he had made a mistake and volunteered to drop out. Here is a youngster who could have gotten away with something but chose to do the right thing instead. "I didn't want to feel like slime," he said. You can keep your echolalia; Andrew Flosdorf has got the big things right.