Why does the National Spelling Bee matter? Seriously — why does it?
For pronouncer Jacques Bailly, the work that goes into the Spelling Bee taps into his meaning of life. It celebrates the expansion of knowledge and human achievement.
“This is a special triumph, it’s a pinnacle of achievement that’s wonderful to see,” Bailly said. “It’s all about the human effort to excel and to show the excellence of knowledge.”
Bailly describes himself as a secular humanist with a bit of stoicism. He believes humans have to make their own meaning.
“For some people that can be dark, but for me that’s liberating,” he said.
The accumulation and celebration of knowledge — that’s what keeps him coming back since 2003. The Bee itself, to him, is a media event.
“This is the big carrot that leads people to try and climb this mountain — but the mountain is what matters,” he said. “Not the top.”
Sometimes he forgets who the winner was, Bailly admits.
The learning and the competition can pay off in so many ways. Studying chemical terms could “grease the wheels” for a speller to discover a cure for an illness.
Many contestants want to be doctors and scientists, after all.
“We’re here for a very short time, we know so very little. This is part of going beyond our humble, primate beings,” Bailly said. “I believe we’re here to be as good as we can possibly be.”
Gavin Stern is a national digital producer for the Scripps National Desk.