Few things in our competitive society truly recognize and appreciate academic ability like the annual spelling bee.

Sunday many of us spent at least a few minutes watching the Super Bowl. In October we’ll talk about the World Series and every spring there is the college basketball tournament and NBA playoffs.

While each of these are celebrated and drive sports fans crazy, there simply aren’t as many opportunities for kids to shine if they excel at spelling, or science, or math or any other academic pursuit.

The annual Youth Engineering and Science Fair has just gotten underway, with students turning in “virtual” projects that will provide another example of how smart our kids are. The event rewards top entries with cash prizes for fifth-graders through those in 12th grade.

What the annual Cochise County Spelling Bee offers, however, is a live competition, even when it’s held online using a video conferencing platform. The pressure of performing live adds to the excitement of watching the outcome.

There’s also the history.

The earliest known evidence of the phrase “spelling bee” in print dates back to 1850, although an earlier name, “spelling match,” has been traced back to 1808. A key impetus for the contests was Noah Webster’s spelling books. First published in 1786 and known as “The Blue-backed Speller,” Webster’s spelling books were an essential part of the curriculum of all elementary school children in the United States for five generations. Now the key reference for the contests is Webster’s Third New International Dictionary.

In 1941, the Scripps Howard News Service took on sponsorship of the event, although the competition was suspended during World War II, from 1943 to 1945, and it wasn’t until 1946 that things got back to normal. That year, the bee was broadcast on national television for the first time. From 2011 to 2016, the sports network ESPN broadcast the event.

Throughout its history, there has been just one significant spelling bee scandal.

In 2011, Timmy Van Kesseline, 11, of Spokane, Washington, was accused of using a computer program after being asked to spell the word “coelenterata.” Judges at first thought the boy was fumbling with his hands — a nervous habit — but quickly determined that he was using his iPhone as a spell checker.

Using the application during the competition resulted in Kesseline being permanently banned from the competition and cost him millions in endorsements from dictionary companies.

Best of luck to the local competitors who will challenge for the Cochise County title this year. The winner will advance to the next level of competition, in the hope that continuing to spell words correctly will eventually lead to the national event held on June 1-3 in National Harbor, Maryland.

This year the event features previous competitors, including the 2020 champion, Luke Perolino, a Willcox eighth grader.

Tune in to watch the event on Saturday at 10 a.m. on the Cochise County Superintendent’s Facebook page.

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