Stan Bunger holds spelling bee word book while posing with Sharon Chin

Sharon Chin

The Bee and Me

"There's a first time for everything"

Stan Bunger
March 19, 2018 - 8:37 am

There's an old axiom in baseball: "Come to the ballpark every day and you'll see something you've never seen before."

Maybe it's time to apply that school of thought to the world of spelling bees.

I know. It happened to me. On live television.

I'm not quite sure how I got here, but somewhow I've become "The Pronouncer For Life" for the annual Bay Area Spelling Bee. I honestly don't know how many of these I've done. I do know it stretches back to the 1980's.

For the last few years, KPIX-5 has televised the Bay Area Bee live (on sister station KBCW). It adds a few wrinkles to the already-exacting process of making sure you correctly pronounce the words, answer questions from the spellers, and generally keep the thing moving along. 

I'd been warned that this year's crop of spellers was very, very good. Two of the field of 44 had achieved perfect scores at the written Bee. That had never happened.

And they were good. We got into some very difficult words around the 5th round, but still a half-dozen spellers remained.

And then there were two. And then came the word "vingt-et-un". Yes, it's French for the number "21". It's also the name of the card game we usually call "blackjack". And before you object: I don't pick the words. I just pronounce them.

Full disclosure: I speak a little French. A little. So my first inclination was to give it the full Monty and make my late mother and grandmother proud. But the pronouncing guide gave the preferred pronunciation as a very non-Gallic "vant-ay-un". So that's what I said.

The young speller asked for lots of additional information, including any alternate pronunciations. Ah! My chance! I ripped off a French-sounding version that would have easily gotten me a B- on any middle-school French oral exam.

Eventually, the speller got it wrong. The other remaining speller, Amith Vasantha of San Jose, correctly spelled "clogwyn" (A Welsh word for cliff or precipice), and I dashed out from behind my lectern to congratulate the winner. We already had the medal around his neck and I was starting to hand him some gift certificates when I heard a voice in my earpiece.

"Challenge," said our producer. I understood the word, but not the context. What could she mean? So I stumbled around for a few seconds before it became clear: there'd been a challenge to the final result.

What followed was a first for me (and for everyone else associated with the Bee). While the "winner" and I stood uncomfortably on stage, a drama was playing out eight feet away.

The parents of the young man who'd misspelled "vingt-et-un" were challenging something. I'm still not really sure what. Apparently, the father had been watching a live video-stream of the Bee from a nearby room and felt he had a case on behalf of his son.

The parents brought a laptop computer to the judges' table and pleaded their case. Time dragged on. KPIX anchors Brian Hackney and Sharon Chin killed time and eventually tossed to a pre-recorded report.

Thankfully, and appropriately, the judges denied the appeal and we moved on to give Amith his due as the 2018 CBS Bay Area Spelling Bee champion. He'll go on to represent the Bay Area at the Scripps National Spelling Bee in May.

I'm sorry it ended the way it did. I'm afraid we now live in a culture where parental "snowplowing" has met up with video replay in an unhealthy way. There was zero chance that the misspelled word was the result of malfeasance or a miscarriage of justice. It was what it was: a misspelled word. A learning opportunity.

I hope all parents who wish success for their kids can learn that failure is part of the process. More importantly: Spelling Bees, soccer games, science fairs, etc. are for kids. Let's let them enjoy the full experience without all the parental interference.