By Tim Barlow
The summer after I graduated from college, I decided on a whim to move out to Southern California. I didn’t have a plan or a job, but during my drive out I daydreamed about uncovering a secret talent for surfing. Hoping to tap into some latent skill just waiting to be discovered, propelling me into fame and fortune. After a couple sessions spent face planting into the ocean floor and retaining enough salt water in my sinuses to never again need a Neti Pot, I hung up the borrowed surfboard; it seemed I was not a natural.
Today, it’s not uncommon for me to be watching a movie and surfing the internet at the same time. At work, I’ll routinely start an email, begin taking notes on a piece of paper, add something to my to-do list, look up some song lyrics on the internet, remember to take my vitamins, decide to make some tea and stare out the window, wonder if those are cumulonimbus clouds, wonder what the weather is going to be after work, check the weather, discuss the weather with co-workers, and then eventually remember the abandoned half done email a few hours later after closing the eleven other open windows on my desktop. It would seem that I lack focus, and maybe commitment, oh, and also, follow through.
I went into watching Spellbound with a weird hope that they were just naturally good at spelling. There is this allure, maybe as a holdover from my fascination with superheroes, or growing up in an age when every tv show character had a secret power or skill, everyone is born a beautiful snowflake kinda crap, that a special gift, uniquely given at birth is a) a realistic possibility and b) something to covet. Maybe something like surfing that I could just discover without having to work. Conversely, when something is learned and worked hard for, a little of the shine goes away, maybe I think if I worked as hard at it as you, I could do that too, you’re not so special. This is where you should say, BUT YOU DIDN’T WORK HARD YOU LAZY PILE, and then I’ll ask, but do I still get a participation ribbon? And then you should hit me. So that’s what I expected to think while watching the movie; eh, so what, they spend a lot of time spelling. But that’s not what I got. I was so impressed, yes of course by their being able to spell these incredibly complex words, but far exceeding that, was my wonder and awe and jealousy at the commitment of these contestants and families. How do they do that? How did they study and work so hard? How do they care that much?
At one point, one of the contestants makes light of their superfluous skills: ‘When am I ever going to have to even know the word for a Moroccan wind, let alone need to spell it.’ And she’s right, this is not a very practical skill, like for example my being able to kick a soccer ball or throw a football, but the training and mindset and focus it took for her to be able to spell a word that she’ll never ever need to know will absolutely be helpful. The more cynical side of me wants to scoff at the sacrifice they’re making. Their time. Their youth. And my god, their social skills (“Does this sound like a musical robot?”) But I’m actually pretty jealous. What could I accomplish if I was willing to forego some things that keep me distracted? What am I capable of with a little more focus and commitment? And that’s what I’m left with after watching Spellbound, that and of course this quote.
“Besides spelling, hmm, I really like roller coasters…I’m a vegetarian, and I like coffee.” April, 4th place finisher, Scripps National Spelling Bee