Spellbound is a documentary about eight contestants at the 1999 National Spelling Bee (with a little bit about a ninth). It's quite charming, but thinking it over, it occurred to me to ask: why is this a movie? Sure, there's drama to it, but that drama was already broadcast live on ESPN in 1999 — the movie actually uses a fair amount of ESPN footage — so what does this add? There are short introductory segments that let us spend five minutes or so with each of the eight subjects, but they don't go much deeper than the much-derided segments introducing the athletes in NBC's coverage of the Olympics every couple of years. And it seems to me that spelling bees offer a window into some issues that really deserve thinking through.

For instance, there's some talk about the role of spelling as a visible sign of education... back in the days when literacy in America was even more hit-or-miss than it is today, being able to spell indicated that you did indeed have some book larnin'. But it's a rough metric: by the time you get to words like "clavecin" and "heleoplankton," you're not really saying anything about literacy. Of course, nothing's really riding on the Spelling Bee — it's just a game, with a bit of prize money — and everyone involved seems well aware of that, much as they'd like the prize and the prestige of winning. But then look at the SAT, or the GRE, or the exit exams most states now require as a condition of graduation. For the most part they too are focused less on what's important than on what's easy to test. Which means that thinking intelligently about texts goes out the window; it's all about vocabulary and basic information retrieval. And as with spelling, fundamental deficits in these areas say a lot about your overall ability, but once you pass a certain threshold, score differences are close to meaningless. My SAT students who start with 650s on the verbal are indeed way smarter than those who start with 400s... but those who start with 750s aren't really any smarter than the 650s. And on a grander scale, just as there's more to verbal ability than spelling, vocabulary and information retrieval, there is more to education than math, reading comprehension, and expository essay writing. Yet over the past few years these three have been turning from bellwethers into the entirety of the curriculum in a lot of US schools.

I can certainly see where the testing impulse comes from; given that classes like these are more the rule than the exception, it's certainly understandable to cry, "Gyah! We can't keep letting people that illiterate pass through our school system!" But just diagnosing that there's a problem isn't enough, nor are the current remedies, which amount to saying, "Get better or else!" Sometimes schools just let kids drop out until, hey, look at that, the failure rate is down; sometimes they call in tutors (eg, me) to help out, and we come in and discover that these seventeen-year-olds never actually learned what division is and think, "You know, eight hours isn't actually going to be enough to catch these kids up. Better focus on test-taking strategy."

Tests aren't going to improve schools, not alone. First off, we need to fundamentally change the American classroom. Teachers are expected both to be able to teach a subject well and to be able to ride herd on a group of kids, sometimes forty or fifty at a time; these are totally separate skills. I've been a teacher since 1994, and I'm pretty damn good at getting stuff into kids' brains, if they're paying attention. What I'm terrible at is keeping in line a classroom full of kids who just want to go smoke in the bathroom or play paper football. Which is why I do private tutoring and teach classes that people have to pay for up front. I'm not a babysitter; discipline shouldn't be my job. That's the parents' job, or the administrators'. So, yeah, in public schools there should be at least two adults per classroom. Class sizes should be small enough that the teachers know how well every kid is picking up the material without having to resort to standardized tests. And those teachers should be every bit as smart as we expect doctors and lawyers and professors to be: no more B-minus students from Westfield State who are teaching as a sidelight to selling Amway. The best way to attract qualified people is to pay them accordingly instead of expecting fulfilling a "calling" to compensate for a life of relative poverty. Tripling or quadrupling teacher salaries would be a start.

But this would require a change in our culture, in which education isn't particularly valued. The signs are everywhere: Bush mocks Gore in a debate for having the temerity to do some math ("He talks about numbers. Huh-huh."); Oregon voters decide to let Portland schools close weeks early rather than pay to keep them open; in California a tax increase to close a budget deficit isn't even on the table, but gutting the University of California is a top item on the agenda. There's also the fact, frequently brought up in Spellbound, that academic achievement is a good way to win scorn from one's peers at most schools in the US. (And from movie reviewers, who tend to refer to the Spellbound kids as dorks and make up imaginary deficits for them under the theory that someone who's smart must thereby be emotionally crippled. "Does she know how to just lie on her back and look up at the stars?" one reviewer wonders. Yeah, I bet she does — and better than you.) The net effect of all this is that the opportunity to get a decent education in the US is limited, made into an artificially scarce resource by people's misplaced priorities. There are only so many good schools, and those schools only have so many slots. And that leads to competition.

I was pleasantly surprised at how non-pathological the Spellbound kids were: naturally they wanted to win, but they weren't assholes about it the way athletes and politicians tend to be. (I grew up watching basketball, and man, when you learn about the sort of personalities that champions like Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas and Larry Bird have, well, there just aren't enough showers in the world to feel clean again.) But it does seem that framing academic achievement as a contest is something else the movie could have gone into in greater depth: the way that in American education the words "competitive" and "good" are used interchangeably, the way even the brightest students tend to see learning not as an end in itself but a set of hoops to jump through in order to accomplish some goal (usually a big salary) and if cheating will knock out some of the hoops, so much the better. But all of the kids in Spellbound seem to be more Julie than Alex in that regard.

As for the kids — they're a diverse lot, but the filmmakers seem to be going for a fairly shallow "American Dream" interpretation rather than trying to delve into some of the deeper questions behind that diversity. They stick American flags into shot after shot and seem to take at face value one immigrant father's assertion that in America anyone who works hard will succeed — indeed, this seems to be one of the themes of the movie, that the kid from the DC projects and the rich daughter of Yale profs both made it to the same place. But this seems to fall into the old trap of "Dave here made it out of the slums, so everyone else there must just be lazy." It's worth noting that the teachers of the inner-city and rural kids act as though they are miracle children, though in a rich suburb they'd just be typical public school honors students — in some places, just being moderately bright is enough to make you a space alien. All three of these kids bow out early. Much as the film might try to suggest otherwise, America is not a level playing field.

Which leaves the question, how do miracle children, however relative the term, come to be? One thing that really struck me about Spellbound was how many of the kids seemed nice and level-headed despite an environment that would seem to encourage the opposite. Sure, one's pretty sullen, one's a big bundle of tics who wears out his welcome after about fifteen seconds, and one (shoehorned in at the end) is a flat-out pod. But for the most part I wanted to hug them all. It was impossible to pick one favorite, or even a few; as each one got up to the microphone I was talking out loud to the screen, giving them hints, saying things like "c'mon!" as they were getting close and "yeah!" when they got words right. And I found myself thinking, "How can I get one of these kids?"

I've reached the age that it seems like all my friends are having children... even friends who are younger than me are starting families now. And for the first time I've found myself thinking of having children not as something to worry about in the distant future but as something that's an issue now. I'm 30; Jen'll be 32 soon. Right now we're not settled enough for having kids to be a wise move... the financial picture's a little shaky, we don't have health insurance, and so forth. And Jen says she doesn't want kids at all. But I do. I'd especially like to have a daughter. But the big question is, if Jennifer were to change her mind and we did have a kid, say five years down the line, how on earth do you mold a child into a decent human being? Take Neil, the guy from Orange County who skipped two grades and is of Indian ancestry (gosh, how could I ever relate to someone like that?)... his dad is so overbearing I'd expect the kid to be either a timorous mouse or a raging asshole, but he seems like a serious, thoughtful, down-to-earth guy; if I had a son and knew he'd turn out the way this kid seems to be, I'd be pretty ecstatic. Or take Emily, who just sparkles with intelligence and charm; from the admittedly scant evidence of the film, it'd seem like the opportunity to live with her for eighteen years would be an absolute blessing, but couple of offhand comments indicate that that blessing has mostly been left to the au pair. How can parenting that seems so far from optimal turn out seemingly great kids, while other parents who seem to be doing everything right wind up with terrors on their hands? It strikes me as a natural question, but Spellbound is a bit too superficial to take it on. Mike D'Angelo recently reviewed a different documentary and commented, "Sometimes I get the sense that there [are] way too many people standing around with tiny video cameras asking of everything that comes within their field of vision: 'Hmm... could that be a film, perhaps?'" Spellbound would seem to fit that definition nicely. "Hmm, what's on ESPN? Hey, a spelling bee! Bet if I stuck some bio segments up front that could be a movie!"

As far as the bee alone is concerned, my spirit twin is April, the daughter of the blue-collar schlub from Pennsylvania and his loopy wife; she came in third. I only participated in a couple of official spelling bees back in my own school days; I won the 4th-grade one one the word "artificial," but that was just for Taft Elementary. In 8th grade, however, Ms. Giroux gathered a bunch of us into a corner one day and drilled us with words so she could perform a bit of triage, and I was the last person selected. I ended up at the Orange County Spelling Bee, carpooling there with the family of another kid, and as I was the last one selected from my school, I expected to be one of the first ones out. But as the field winnowed from 60 to 30 to 10, and my friends from both my school and some others were sent offstage by words I thought were pretty easy, I realized I actually had a shot. After I got "sumptuous," it was just me, the kid I'd arrived with, and some girl from another school. But then — it's true, you never forget the one that zaps you — I got "kiosk." I'd never heard the word before in my life. Third place. To this day I cannot hear the word without cringing.

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