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

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

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.

Jon Pennington

The agony and ecstasy of the National Spelling Bee

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.

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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

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 more than 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.

When a competitor is crowned the National Spelling Bee victor this year, the champion will embark on a similar journey to the one I took nearly 30 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.

Do you remember what word knocked you out of a spelling bee? Share your memories in the comments, on Twitter @CNNschools or on CNN Living's Facebook page!