For the first time since 2019, participants in the Scripps National Spelling Bee will have a normal experience. That included visits to Planet Word Museum on Tuesday, which says it’s the “only museum in the country dedicated to renewing and inspiring a love of words and language.”
None of this year’s 234 participants in the Bee (finals Thursday at 8 p.m. ET on ION) lack that passion, said head judge Mary Brooks. But it’s important to remember the larger impact of the Bee.
“It is all about words, and the power of words,” Brooks told USA TODAY. “In isolation, this Spelling Bee is just a wonderful competition that celebrates young people’s skills. In the bigger picture of what’s going on in our world, it matters immensely that young people have an understanding of the power of the words – not just how to spell them.”
The use of definitions during the Bee is a nod to that belief, Brooks said.
“Words used carefully can change so much,” said Brooks, who taught high school English for 34 years and has been involved with the Bee for 51 years. “And used destructively, can destroy so much.”
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Over her decades observing Bee participants — and judging them — the methods of studying have certainly changed, thanks to technology. It has helped the Bee overall, Brooks said.
“It’s amazing to me that their brains up on that stage almost act like watching a computer, a Google search, as they spin around, trying to find whatever little nugget they could grab onto, a word that might somehow help them if they’re totally unfamiliar with it,” she said.
There is one main similarity among the contestants: the love of language.
“That just doesn’t go away – and that they are avid readers,” Brooks said. “It just does my heart good to still hear these kids talk about reading and books and how important they are in their lives.”
As part of the Bee’s switch in media partners from ESPN/ABC to ION, the network produced a documentary called “Road to the Bee,” which profiled a handful of spellers (and herself).
Watching that, Brooks said, would leave anyone with a renewed sense that young people of that caliber will better the world.
Plus, she added, they will always value words.
“We are in good hands,” she said. “We can stop stressing over the state of our world if these are the young people that are going to step up and do all the things they are capable of doing, not just because they’re a contestant in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, but because they have those traits.”
Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.