I’m such a bad speller that a few years ago I was invited to a neurology lab at Yale University to have my head examined. Scientists wanted to know how a professional writer who adores words can be so completely awful at spelling them. It’s something that might be of interest this week as I cover the Scripps National Spelling Bee, which starts in earnest Wednesday.
I’ve been an improvisational speller all my life. I read millions of words a year, write them by the thousands and still misspell at a clip of about a clunker per line. For an article in the Post’s Sunday magazine, I once looked deeply into all the possible causes, the maddening history of English, the lame spelling instruction of the 1970s and, finally, the growing awareness that some brains have an actual spelling glitch. (I found some answers, but no cure. In the paragraph above, spellcheck alerted me to five misspellings. “Neurology,” of course, but I also gave an extra “L” to “actual” and tried to start “clunker” with a “K.”)
The same editor who assigned that magazine piece has decided it would be just a scream (not screem) for me to cover the National Spelling Bee. (She was also the one who once assigned me to take over Christmas planning in my family, had me work as an untrained judge at the Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational Barbecue tournament and made me spend a weekend with a troupe of professional birthday party princesses. I call her the assistant managing editor for humiliation.)
In preparation, I took a spelling test. It’s the same computerized exam competitors take on the bee’s first day. Most ace it and make into the second round. I didn’t. (I got Aurox, duplicitous and romanticism but blew it on sinecure.). You can take it too, here. (Note, this is last year’s exam. This year’s will be released later in the week.)
What I learned in my earlier reporting is that sinecure may defeat me because my brain has a few of its spelling wires crossed. That’s what they found when I climbed in the MRI machine at the Yale Center for the Study of Learning and Attention, one of the country’s leading centers of dyslexic research. More and more, neurologists think otherly-abled spellers like me have a latent form of dyslexia that shows up not in the reading but the writing. (Or is it dislyxia?)
So when the country’s 281 best spellers take the stage Wednesday, I will be sending dangerously spelled dispatches from the auditorium. And I will be in awe of those kids, not because they are born spellers (ho-hum), but because of the herculean (I got that one!) work they have put in before they can be at the bee.
See how some of our elected officials, including President Obama, did at spelling champion-caliber words here: