Friday, January 7, 2011


Archer participated in his first spelling bee today.  As you might expect, he was very interested in the logistics of the affair.  Yesterday he told me all about the practice round they played in his class.  But today, he was up against all the fourth graders in the school.  And there were no word lists to study.  As Archer told me, "any word can be called."

I asked him about his strategy.  He told me, "I see the word in my mind, and I read the letters left to right."

And that's probably why, at least in the absence of word lists, he went out in round 3.  The word was "kerchief."  Not being an avid reader of fiction, Archer has scant opportunity to encounter these words in the wild.  So he has no mental picture of them.  He spelled it "k-u-r-c-h-i-e-f," and was dinged out of the competition.

Happily, he was not upset, and watched the rest of the bee with interest.  The first and second place students are both classmates of his in the Pinnacle program.  Noel, who was in the audience, knew the girl who came in first, but not the second place boy.  We asked Archer who came in second place, and he said with brio, "That's 'Thought Genius' JoVoni Johnson."  He explained that JoVoni has the nickname "Thought Genius" because on the thought of the day in Pinnacle -- a saying or proverb that the students need to explain in writing -- he almost always gets a top score.

We thought Archer had the potential to win the bee, or at least be one of the two who got to move on to the county level.  So did his classmates; there was an audible gasp when he misspelled his word.  But there's some relief that he found himself handicapped by his lack of preparation.  At the national level, it's clear that many of the participants are like Archer -- obsessed or autistic to some degree, able to focus single-mindedly on the minutiae of the spelling word list, using sheer photographic memory to crush their opponents.  I always pity the poor neurotypical kids at that level, trying to use ordinary study skills to ingest all the words and information they need to compete.  Often, too, the oddball kids who show up at the highest levels are the subject of ribbing or even gently-intended ridicule by the media.

We don't want Archer to be misunderstood that way.  We want him to do well at things he enjoys, and to receive the praise that's due anyone who makes the effort to acquire skill at something that requires it, no matter their innate talent.  What's been gratifying about his schooling the last couple of years is that his peers and teachers have clearly given him respect for doing just that.  I hope that continues for a long time.

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