Can you spell ‘Laodicean?’

Published 2:57 pm Saturday, May 30, 2009

Be honest.

Without looking at this column, would you know how to spell “arrogance?” How about “cubicle,” “thorough,” “asylum,” “abyss” or “rebuttal?” All of the above were words on this year’s Round 1 test at the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

Now let’s jump to a later round.

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Would you know how to spell “herniorrhaphy?” Would you even know what it is? How about “omphaloskepsis,” “ophelimity,” “psittacosis” or “scilicet?”

These are words from Round 7, ones that most of the contestants spelled correctly, even though four out of the five were flagged by my computer’s spellcheck.

I have to admit I watched a little bit of this year’s bee on television last week.

These students aren’t just the best spellers in their elementary schools or middle schools. These are some of the best spellers in the country, period.

Take this year’s winner for example, Kavya Shivashankar, an aspiring 13-year-old neurosurgeon from Kansas whose winning word was the proper adjective “Laodicean,” which means “lukewarm” or “indifferent in religion or politics.”

She won in Round 16.

Sarah Shultz, a sixth-grade teacher at Austin’s Ellis Middle School, site leader for the Gifted and Talented education program and the school’s spelling bee coordinator, said she is impressed by how well these students compete at the national level.

“I’m always amazed by their knowledge of phonetics and word origin,” she said. “When you look at a word origin, you are looking at the country it is from, but each country has different dialect markings, so you’re looking at all of those things as well.”

So Ms. Shultz, could you spell the words in the final rounds of the Scripps National Spelling Bee?

“Oh gosh no,” she said.

Me neither.

These students rattle off spellings to words most people can’t pronounce.

As I watched these brilliant and talented students, I also wondered how often they have a chance to just be kids.

One of the youngest spellers this year was being interviewed by a reporter while munching on a chocolate chip cookie. The youth, who was probably not much older than 10 and had recently misspelled a word, said that he planned on taking a week off before preparing for next year’s bee.

A week?

It’s nearly summer for crying out loud.

What happened to riding bikes or going swimming?

Shultz said she understood, though, and compared these students’ passion for spelling with the way some students have a passion for other activities.

“If this is a passion, it’s no different than someone who excels in math or a sport,” she said. “If it is their passion, they are going to have the desire to practice.”

Bryan Greeson, a nationally-certified school psychologist in Gastonia, N.C., agreed.

He said that while an average student shouldn’t be pushed in a direction where an interest isn’t there, a few students have a natural talent in one area and can achieve a high level through hard work all-year around in that specific activity.

“If that’s their gift, then it’s OK if you’re just being a responsible parent,” he said. “For the majority of kids, you don’t want to push them into one thing that’s going to monopolize their time.”

So there you have it.

The bottom line is, if your kid’s named Tiger Woods, Shawn Johnson, Kobe Bryant or Kavya Shivashankar, then one activity all the time is perfectly healthy.

If your kid has a different name, chances are they’ll enjoy more than one activity, including riding bikes and going swimming.