Without fail, the Scripps National Spelling Bee always manages to deliver on entertainment, educational value, and irony-laced words. Though I doubt it's ever intentional, some of the words spelled in the final rounds of the last few years have been incredibly fitting for the times we were in. For example, one of the harder words of 2007, was "Kakistocracy," which means "Government under the control of a nation's worst or least-qualified citizens." It was true then, and sadly, it's still true now. I tucked that word into my arsenal to use on my future children or the next time I got pulled over by the police for a random criminal check (a virtual certainty when you are black and breathing and live in Seattle, Washington).
Usually I am glued to a television during the Scripps Spelling Bee in the same manner many are currently observing the NBA Finals. That probably makes me a nerd, but unfortunately, giving several hours a week to the NBA isn't paying my bills right now so my loyalty is at about zero. Sadly, spelling bees offer no amazing game-winning, half-court three pointers, or big names like Kobe Bryant and Lebron James. What spelling bees do offer is a chance to observe how incredibly powerful language can be. I continue to be fascinated by the English language, but particularly, I'm intrigued by these pre-pubescent, somewhat nerdy type-competitors who are walking dictionaries of etymology and lexicon. Winning a spelling competition seems a bit of a waste of all the knowledge if you ask me. Then again, I can't spell "definitely" correctly without my trusty spellcheck (also known as the biggest ignorance enabler of the 20th century).
This year, however, the Scripps Spelling Bee threw me for a loop when the final, winning word was, brace yourselves, "Laodicean."
Did I hear that correctly? Laodicean? Do you know how incredibly easy that word is and should be? Here I usually sit in a complete stupor for most of the spelling bee because I can't even pronounce let alone spell the words these 11-year-olds are decimating in the first round alone and yet I can spell the final, winning, championship word in my sleep? Trust me when I say, I'm just not that smart when it comes to these things. I am the girl who a few years ago, once asked in all sincerity, "What day is Cinco de Mayo?" A student of Spanish I am not. These wordmongers could eat me for lunch in a spelling bee. So trust me when I say it is a sad day in American when this here writer can spell the winning word of the national spelling bee. Yet "Laodicean" is ranked among the most "difficult words" and fit to challenge these top spellers? America, I am concerned.
You probably think me to be a bit melodramatic. After all, it's a spelling bee for goodness' sake. Perhaps I am overreacting, but humor me anyway. Let's go over some of the winning words of the last decade or so, shall we?
Those are definitely some tough words. Some of the most difficult words to spell are actually quite short. The above words present a challenge because their pronunciations can throw off the speller, as do the silent letters and particular word origin. I know for a fact I couldn't spell 95% of them without at least being off by a few letters. So what is my beef with "Laodicean?" Quite simply, it's a very easy word for anyone who has ever cracked open a stinkin' Bible. Please note: I do not think the Bible stinks...it was merely an idiomatic expression. See how cool words can be? Moving on.
"Laodicea" is a pretty standard, run-of-the-mill Biblical word. "Laodicea" was an ancient city and the "Laodicean church" was often referenced in the Bible. And why do I know this? Because as early as I could be scolded for telling my classmate to "shut up," I had the Bible drilled into every crevice of my cerebral cortex. There was a time when people of many different religions, ethnicities, and walks of life actually had read or studied the Bible at some point in their lives. Not for indoctrination, but for educational purposes. Fancy that! If you go back a few generations, you'll fine few among them who can't quote at least one scripture from the Bible. Today, there's a whole segment of young Americans who can't even name the first book of the Bible.
While some dismiss it as merely a historical text or a bunch of "old stories," even the most atheistic of scholars would be remiss to not admit the Bible is one of the single greatest and epic pieces of literary illumination to ever exist on the planet. Not only is it a mastery of allegory, narrative, prophecy, sarcasm, hyperbole, verse and metaphorical brilliance, it also happens to be the best selling book of all time, ever, period, no contest. So much historical context and literary insight has been drawn from the Bible it's difficult to find the point where the Bible ends and our nation's history begins. Just reading the Bible cover to cover instantly puts the average person light years ahead of their peers in terms of endurance and subconscious insight. To this day scholars remain in all out war about what certain scriptures and passages of the Bible infer. I've witnessed it at the halls of my very liberal, very secular university. Safe to say, the Bible is a pretty important book.
So it is quite interesting to me that in 2009, and among the most challenging of challenging words and supposed best and brightest subjects "Laodicean" is even intended to present a real challenge. My how far we've fallen away from being a learned society. I wonder if anyone has drawn a correlation between the incredible generational success of people of the Jewish faith in America and the fact that many (though not all) young, Jewish teenagers in America actually have a rite-of-passage where they have to learn and memorize the Torah, the Talmud or at least part of its contents? It's something to ponder.
Perhaps I'm playing with a few ideas that need to be fleshed out, but I think there is something to be said for historical literacy. I've previously written about how robbed this generation is of the privilege of being well-versed in our nation's founding documents such as the Declaration of Independence or the Bill of Rights. Just the simple act of digesting eloquent wisdom writings produces transference like no other.
Persuasive, intelligent and well-learned speech is hard to come by these days. Though if you'll observe history, persuasive speech is most often the primary means by which leaders (good and bad) rise to the top, and the vehicle for average citizens to change society. When we look back upon the lives of the great world changers who've passed on, we usually don't dwell on the way they dressed or their difficult childhood. Instead, we study the one of most potent things they've left behind -- their words. Be it the written word or oration, every day in this country, someone quotes something someone great once said.
I am probably the only person on the planet who gets teary-eyed while watching the movie "Akeelah and the Bee" -- a story about a girl who rises against the odds to become a great student of language. I am so not a person who cries during movies. In fact, I actually laugh at the people who cry in the movie theater. I can count on one hand the number of films that have brought me to tears. Yet, that darn little black girl and her big words get me every time. All evidence to the contrary, my emotion isn't the least bit sentimental. What moves me is the weight of the reality of how much battle a person can do with mere words. Words can change a nation. Words can destroy that which needs to be destroyed. Hearing the right words can set captives free. Hearing the wrong words can send people spiraling out of control. My insides get all knotted up when I see the evidence before us that there is an entire generation that isn't being trained up to effectively engage in battle with their words or their speech. The rampant mediocrity is disturbing to say the least.
So I congratulate 13-year-old Kavya Shivashankar of Olathe, Kansas, for accomplishing a feat many of us could never pull off -- and for spelling "Laodicean" correctly. I hope her vast knowledge of language extends farther than route memorization techniques and actually seeps into the fabric of who she is. We need more young people to step back into their "righteous minds." That is to say, we need more young people to deprogram themselves from the doctrine of popular culture and throw off the encumbrances of being ignorant to the clarity and insight of possessing historical context and cracking open an old, long, book.
How very ironic indeed that the literal dictionary definition of "Laodicean" is "Indifferent or lukewarm especially in matters of religion." In Biblical context, the mark of the Laodicean people was that they were, "lukewarm, neither hot nor cold." If you've ever had to fix yourself a drink, you know that hot or cold is optimal, but lukewarm is just the worst. As for the current state of my generation, well, you be the judge. //
I'd like to leave you with what I believe to be a fantastic metaphor for what I believe many people (all races, creeds, ethnic origins, and religions) in this generation are facing -- "Righteous Mind," one of my favorite Denzel Washington monologues of all time, from the film "The Great Debaters." This scene takes place as the professor (Washington) addresses the new debate team at Wiley College at their first official practice. It's a worthwhile film, even with its slight glorification of communism, but that's another post.
Draw your own present day analogies....
Here is the monologue text for those who can't view video:
"Anybody know who Willy Lynch was? Anybody? Raise your hand. He was a vicious slave owner in the West Indies. The slave owners in the colonies of Virginia were having trouble controlling their slaves so they sent for Mr. Lynch to teach them his methods. Keep the slave physically strong but psychologically weak and dependent on the slave master. Keep the body, take the mind. I and every other professor on this campus are here to help you to find, take back and keep your righteous mind."