Skip to main content

National contest isn't bee-all and end-all

By Jon Pennington, Special to CNN
updated 10:12 AM EDT, Fri May 31, 2013
Arvind Mahankali won the 2013 Scripps National Spelling Bee after spelling "knaidel," which is a dumpling. Click through to see the rest of the winners from the past 15 years. The definitions of their winning words are from the Merriam-Webster dictionary. <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2013/05/29/us/gallery/scripps-spelling-bee-2013/index.html' target='_blank'>View photos from this year's spelling bee</a>. Arvind Mahankali won the 2013 Scripps National Spelling Bee after spelling "knaidel," which is a dumpling. Click through to see the rest of the winners from the past 15 years. The definitions of their winning words are from the Merriam-Webster dictionary. View photos from this year's spelling bee.
HIDE CAPTION
National Spelling Bee champions
National Spelling Bee champions
National Spelling Bee champions
National Spelling Bee champions
National Spelling Bee champions
National Spelling Bee champions
National Spelling Bee champions
National Spelling Bee champions
National Spelling Bee champions
National Spelling Bee champions
National Spelling Bee champions
National Spelling Bee champions
National Spelling Bee champions
National Spelling Bee champions
National Spelling Bee champions
National Spelling Bee champions
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jon Pennington won the National Spelling Bee in 1986
  • The bee provided a safe space for smart kids to meet one another
  • Pennington met Johnny Carson and Ronald Reagan
  • These days, the topic doesn't come up much

Editor's note: Jon Pennington won the 1986 National Spelling Bee. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two dogs.

(CNN) -- I've always lived in a world of letters and alphabets. One of my earliest recollections is memorizing every line and curve of the ABC's on a baby blanket my grandparents gave me. I learned to read at an early age, but my favorite books were dictionaries. I wanted no plot, no narrative, just the onrush of one word after another.

This obsessive attention to letters and orthography led me to victory at the 1986 National Spelling Bee. My winning word: odontalgia, which means toothache.

Winning the Bee can lead to all kinds of aches -- headaches, stomachaches, growing pains. But it can also be the time of a young kid's life. If you were to ask me whether the National Spelling Bee leads to obsessive levels of competition, I would say "absolutely." But that's not necessarily a bad thing. The same obsessions that lead a child to win a spelling bee are not much different from the obsessions that might someday lead a scientist to the cure for cancer.

The agony and ecstasy of the National Spelling Bee

Jon Pennington
Jon Pennington

What is great about the National Spelling Bee is that it provides a safe space for prepubescent kids to meet peers with a similar obsession for words. When I was in junior high, public schools tolerated a much higher background level of bullying than they do in the post-Columbine era, but when I was at the Spelling Bee, I fit in. Yes, I won the championship, and I am always grateful for that, but ironically, the downside to being champion is that it gives you a lot less time to socialize with your fellow word nerds.

People ask me what it was like to win the National Spelling Bee, but I mostly remember the lights and flashbulbs of the press that followed my victory. They were so blindingly bright to me I eventually borrowed my mother's tinted sunglasses to cut down on the glare. I was flown from Washington to New York to appear on "Good Morning America," then flown back almost as quickly to shake hands with President Ronald Reagan in the White House Rose Garden.

Then it was on to "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson. (For those of you younger folk, Johnny Carson is the late night TV guy before the other late night TV guy before Jimmy Fallon.) Carson was extremely personable to me and seemed to prefer hosting "ordinary" guests like a spelling bee winner or some farmer who won a Guinness World Record for growing the world's largest pumpkin instead of going through yet another interview with a movie star trying to plug his or her latest film.

National Spelling Bee Fast Facts

Stay in touch!
Don't miss out on the conversation we're having at CNN Living. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for the latest stories and tell us what's influencing your life.

After appearing on "The Tonight Show," I talked less and less about winning the National Spelling Bee. I would occasionally get ribbed for it at school (or asked to spell an off-color word or two), but generally, it was less of a bother to let it fade into the background. I barely told anybody about it in college. In fact, a schoolmate only found out after finding my name listed as a spelling bee champion in an old copy of the World Almanac.

When I watch the telecasts of the National Spelling Bee today, I'm impressed at the increasing level of competition that the kids bring to the bee each year. I won the over 25 years ago, but today, I'm not sure I could break out of the top 50.

One of these days, a kid will memorize every single word in Webster's Third New International, and the judges may be forced to coin new words on the spot to declare a champion. Until then, I'm not only astounded by the quality of competition, but also uplifted by the spirit of fair play and mutual support that the spellers display to each other.

Tonight one competitor will be crowned the 2013 National Spelling Bee victor and embark on a similar journey to the one I did 27 years ago. If I could impart any wisdom to the winner, it would be this: Life doesn't begin or end with the spelling bee. It just gives you some wonderful tales to tell along the way.

Were you a bee kid? How far did you go? Share your story in the comments below.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
CNN Living reflects your life. From advice for modern parents to the freshest news in food: It's all here.
updated 5:11 PM EDT, Mon March 10, 2014
Some classrooms are building in time for students to work on passion projects that teach students how to learn from failure.
updated 11:32 PM EST, Thu February 27, 2014
So many parents dread the teenage years -- the eye rolling, door slamming and lack of conversation. But there are ways to get a teen to open up.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Thu February 27, 2014
Shelves full of knickknacks, chairs piled atop tables, dusty toys dangling from the ceiling: That's enough for some to flee a flea market.
updated 11:37 AM EDT, Tue April 1, 2014
When Sarah Fox's boyfriend died, she was devastated just as a wife would have been. But others didn't always see her pain the same way.
Willow, a 12-year-old Labrador retriever, has watched over the vines at Long Island's Bedell Cellars since she was 10 weeks old.
updated 4:38 PM EDT, Thu March 27, 2014
martha stewart wedding costs
Weddings are a glorious celebration of the union of two souls. They're also a lightning rod for family drama.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT