What we can learn from a TV spelling bee

Newlands College student Finn Lewis won the TVNZ 1 national spelling competition programme 'Spellbound'.

Newlands College student Finn Lewis won the TVNZ 1 national spelling competition programme 'Spellbound'.

It's not about the spelling.

Just as it's not about the English. Or the Math. Or the Science. Or the Art. Or the Physical Education.

It's about the meaning we take from those things. The experiences, the feedback, the stories -  good or bad  - we tell ourselves about them.

Over the past few weeks I've watched a televised spelling bee for students, aged 12-15 years. They came, they locked words, they slugged it out letter for letter, gradually dropping competitors until it came down to the Last Kids Standing.

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Spelling bees: It's about so much more than just spelling....

Spelling bees: It's about so much more than just spelling....


I'd always told myself I don't really like these kinds of contests, believing them to be the domain of ultra smart, slightly nerdy kids with very pushy parents. But week after week this assortment of kids chipped away at my view, as they should, because it was wrong.

Unconventional, endearing, unfailingly polite, I was drawn into this group who transgressed gender, race, ethnicity, size and quirks of thinking and behaviour. The boy who wore the floppy hat; the boy who went through a series of behavioural rituals to calm his nerves; the student with the stammer.

As I watched, I came to realise why they deserved their shot on the stage. It's that kids who are good with words, or have other unorthodox skills or talents, usually stand in the shadow of star athletes, musicians, dancers or actors: people who do physical things. That kids who don't are often not noticed, passed over, left out.

It's that parents of such kids have valid reasons for their own anxiety, because they may have spent years worrying about their son or daughter's capacity to fit in, let alone thrive, in education's mainstream — or even things more simple than that. Like whether their child would have anyone to eat their lunch with.

These spelling whiz kids handed out a lesson to young athletes, too. Not for them the smashing of a cricket bat or tennis racquet when things didn't go their way. No sulking in the corner when their fellow contestants conquered a word; only genuine disappointment and compassion when a new friend got it wrong.

As a clinical psychologist I spend my days working with people who struggle against the core beliefs they hold for, and about, themselves. Of them all, the two most common are:

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1. I'm not Good Enough
2. I don't Fit In

Such beliefs, held over time, can cripple people, emotionally.

We are repeatedly told to Be Ourselves. What does that even mean? How are you supposed to relax into being yourself when you're not a candidate for the cool club, and the world keeps slamming you with the feedback that who you are is not good enough, that you don't fit, and that you're weird because of it.

What the world should be telling you is that cool is a sham, and it fades frighteningly fast. That who you are, what you stand for and your unique blend of traits and talents are worth fighting for, and developing, because they are what will protect you and help you find your way.

But back to the Spelling Bee.

Finally, we had a winner. Finn rolled out O-S-T-E-N-S-I-B-L-E and it was over. Spelling shows are always criticised for the types of words, the degrees of difficulty, the cultural appropriateness, the host's comments and the like, but to dwell on these would be to miss the whole point, for the psychological lesson here was S-I-G-N-I-F-I-C-A-N-T.

Especially at the end where, unwittingly perhaps, the show served up its best insight.

When Finn was declared Champion it was clear he was not thinking about the hefty paycheck. When asked to describe the whole experience, his words were raw, candid. I was eating dinner at the time and the fork stopped just short of my mouth.

"For the first time in my life I met a bunch of people where I can fit in...since in the past I was the one person who was not in the group. So this is a really big moment for me," he said.

His obvious pleasure in just finding himself amongst like-minded, accepting people brought a sting to the eye.

You see, in a world where Facebook likes are the holy grail of popularity, it's too easy to forget about the kids, the people, for whom friendship, or even peer acceptance, is not a way of life. That many people regularly feel the dull pain of loneliness, of sitting on the outskirts of the social world.

So it was never about the spelling bee. Our champion's simple out-take of what he gained from the experience perhaps demonstrated the show's true worth. Finding your place, and your people, is everything. Finn spoke for so many when he had the honesty to say so.

This column first appeared on Medium.com. If you want to talk more tweet me, or visit karen@onthecouch.co.nz

 - Stuff


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