By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
It didn’t happen on a field or a court; the location was a retrofitted warehouse overlooking a baseball field. Under the participants’ feet wasn’t hardwood, grass or synthetic turf; it was ordinary high traffic carpet. No one was wearing cleats, helmets or eye black. There wasn’t a scoreboard or clock. No ball was ever in play, no whistle was ever blown. Except for occasional encouraging and tension-cutting applause, the crowd was silent. Nevertheless, the pressure and competition were real. As every contender received their next challenge, a nervous hush fell across the room; as each letter was sheepishly spoken, the anxiety swelled.
That was the scene a couple weeks ago for the Maryland Sports Spelling Bee held at the B&O Warehouse in Baltimore. The competition was for middle school children (mostly…there was one brave and talented third grader). I was fortunate to be in attendance, but it was a humbling experience. As a fledgling writer, I considered myself a decent speller. Full disclosure: I would’ve struggled to make it past the third round. These kids were impressive. Smart. Poised. Respectful. The story was all about them; this article will be too - eventually.
Maryland has always been my home. I have lived in Leonardtown, Catonsville, Baltimore, Towson, Cockeysville, Severna Park, Chesapeake Beach, Great Mills and, finally and currently, Leonardtown again. My in-state exploration has taken me to Maryland’s western panhandle many times – for ‘Skins camp at Frostburg and weekends at Deep Creek Lake – and across the Eastern Shore to Ocean City and the sandy beaches of Worcester County.
What I have always cherished about Maryland is that it feels like America in miniature. The Old Line State has mountains, lakes, rivers, beaches and the largest estuary on the continent. Like small towns, mid-sized towns or large cities? Urban living? Rural living? Dig one-bedroom downtown apartments or expansive farms? Maryland has it all – Goldilocks “just right” scenarios for everyone. History? Yeah, it has it that too: Fort McHenry, Francis Scott Key, the Star-Spangled Banner, the birthplace of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, the United States Naval Academy, Annapolis (the one-time nation’s capital), Dr. Samuel Mudd’s House, and four signers of the Declaration of Independence. I’ll stop there. You get (and feel) the point.
Back to those kids, the master spellers: as their lives unfurl, many will likely grow far more expansive roots than mine, ones that extend to other states, regions and countries. For the moment, though, they are all, like me and many of you, Maryland residents. Beyond that fundamental, shared trait, the diversity within this group of great minds was obvious. As each child introduced themselves and their school, it was clear they had come from all over the state (including several from Southern Maryland) – from those aforementioned Maryland mountains and towns and cities. Various races and, no doubt, religions were represented. There was no discernable gender disparity between the competitors. Some kids were more reserved in nature; others were more gregarious. All were brilliant, all were there, at the B&O Warehouse, to do their best and share this wonderful experience. Much like a basketball that’s shot, a football that’s thrown or a baseball that’s hit, the words didn’t care about the speller’s background, residence, skin color or gender. Most importantly, the kids didn’t seem to care either. They were, above all else, Maryland middle school students trying their best to navigate challenging offerings from the English language. There was ultimately a winner, but there were no losers.
It was Maryland at its best. It was America in miniature, or at least what she should be, if we could only get past the unfounded fears, prejudice and hate of the different. If those afflicted could only overcome the suspicions, reject divisive rhetoric and commit to extinguishing the cancerous “isms” that create various versions of America and inequitable access to her promised liberties and opportunities. If only…
Until then, this example from a flock of Maryland middle schoolers will serve as a picture of what is possible and what the American idea contemplates. The day was simply, and after receiving the word origin and hearing it in a sentence, b-e-a-u-t-i-f-u-l.
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