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Rescind this diktat!

Save the National Spelling Bee!

a post-pandemic path!

Scenes from the 2019 Scripps National Spelling Bee. (Photos by Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
By

Alexandra Coria is a doctor, writer and educator based in Brooklyn who assembled the vocabulary list for this piece with help from a cabal of locked-in logophiles.

My friends and I, a motley group of sesquipedalians, a coterie of aficionados of the art of spelling, were filled with dismay at the diktat, issued in late April, that the National Spelling Bee would not go forward. Only World War II has ever before forced the cancellation of the 95-year-old Bee.

Highlighted words are on the “Words of the Champions” 2020 study guide, difficulty level 2 or 3, for this year’s National Spelling Bee. Hover over them to see their definitions.

Highlighted words are on the “Words of the Champions” 2020 study guide, difficulty level 2 or 3, for this year’s National Spelling Bee. Tap on them to see their definitions.

Highlighted words are on the “Words of the Champions” 2020 study guide, difficulty level 2 or 3, for this year’s National Spelling Bee. Hover or tap to see their definitions.

In today’s bizarro world, with schools closed and public gatherings verboten, the quagmire the organizers faced is clear. Covid-19 has rendered everything nubilous, confusing, unsure. Bees in many local jurisdictions, which qualify winners for the main event, have been canceled. The indubitable truth is that any public event is a danger.

We don’t mean to harangue or sound querulous, and we support the Bee’s commitment to safety. But is the decision truly final, or is it rescissible? Has the full continuum of options been explored? Of all the events, graduations and performances that must be canceled, we think, we hope, that the National Spelling Bee might be salvaged; and if we can resuscitate the Bee, perhaps we can promulgate a path forward to rejuvenate other beloved elements of communal life.

As adults, our hearts have been aching as our hands are pinioned, unable to offer children and young adults the rites of passage that they are missing this year. While we perfect our focaccias, high school seniors lament their lost proms and graduations; while we gather for Zoom kaffeeklatsches, teen athletes, debate stars and theater kids endure the premature loss of their high school careers. Their halcyon days have been truncated, and we grieve with them.

The élan of the Bee has called this year’s eighth graders for much of their lives, and this is their final opportunity to shine. We do not minimize the loss of the in-person event, with all its fanfaronade and camaraderie, but we want to preserve the ritual. Schools have transitioned to online platforms; with the right resources and a little pertinacity, the Bee could transition as well.

We, the wordophiles, call on the AV nerds, the tech geeks, and the former Future, now Current, Business Leaders of America, to lend a hand to the Bee. Let’s work together to stymie the nefarious novel coronavirus, for at least this one group of kids, who have worked so hard for so long to prepare for their moment in Washington this year.

Teleconferencing programs like Google Classroom, Zoom and Skype would allow moderators to call on one participant at a time, muting and unmuting competitors. The misspelling of googol notwithstanding, these companies excel at innovation and design. They could provide a platform suited to the foibles of the inchoate E-Bee.

Some universities use two-camera systems — one facing the room, one facing the student’s screen — to remotely supervise exams. I’m no megacephalic computer wizard, no connoisseur of communications technology, but with clear rules of engagement — not one pinkie, one hallux off-screen! — a similar system should work well for tele-proctoring.

But what, cry the polemics, about the technological neophytes, the Luddites, the holdouts? How will families without broadband get their children to the Bee? How do we train every judge, equip every participant?

To them, we reply, yes, that’s a veritable conundrum. But, we assert, this discussion is crucial, because it helps answer another, graver, question: How do we remedy the divide in our country, laid bare by this pandemic, between the tech-haves and the tech-have-nots? As the coronavirus continues to plague our cities, periods of social distancing may well be the new normal; the Bee can be the vanguard that narrows the schism.

But, I’ll admit, it’s not only for the students that we plea for the Bee. We who are jocks have no sports to watch. Theater, music and movie-lovers find their favorite venues locked. For the office workers, the ennui of working from home begs for a communal experience. I am myself a New York City frontline worker who badly wants a moment of normalcy, of anodyne diversion.

If you bring us the Bee, we promise, there will be a surfeit of viewers, cheering you on and immured by the drama. Seeing the Bee go forward in these tumultuous times, a testament to hard work and innovation, would be therapeutic for our American community, and something we could take solace in together.

We know the challenge is Bunyanesque, but we have our figurative ax ready to swing. Tell us what you need, and let’s bring back the Bee.

Read more:

Will Leitch: ‘The Last Dance’ is awe-inspiring. But it has one big problem.

Lisa J. Servon: You don’t have to be great right now. ‘Good enough’ will do.

Lenore Skenazy: Why a lockdown is a great time to embrace ‘free-range parenting’

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