Friday, June 2, 2006

More Heat, Outside and Inside

Yup, I can complain about the heat. Baltimore.... it feels more like the western coast of Florida, what with the high humidity, stagnant air and searing sun. So, why am I excited about traveling to San Juan? It's much closer to the equator, fool.

For those who love playing in the snow, remember: you always love the thought about it, until you have your hands in the snow for a short while. Then, you can't wait to get into the controlled climate of a nice room.

It was another evening of staying up all night, making checks and double checks about my plans. So this morning, when I woke up after all of 3 hours of sleep, I felt less-than-enthusiastic about getting up. Fortunately, my jobs were in the nice air-conditioned environments. After swinging by the city police headquarters, I grabbed some Puerto Rican food at a place in east Baltimore. The chicken was much better than the beef. A stop at the photo department, and then it was off to cover the Baltimore Bee, at a middle school on the west side.

Talk about misery. The school had no air conditioning and only one floor fan to circulate the stagnant air inside the auditorium, which had several hundred people in attendance. A 4-piece band pumped out some foot-stomping jazz beats as we waited and waited .... and waited.... for the event to start. You know, when I see most everyone using the pamphlets to fan air on themselves, I'm gonna start the event a little early.

Several Baltimore Ravens players were there as guests or as judges, sitting down at tables at the symphony pit, and the children - all middle schoolers - went to the stage and sat down. After a number of speeches (and me, rolling my eyes, wishing the speeches would simply end because of the miserable conditions), the contest started.

I had a feeling that it wouldn't go smoothly, since the audio that the judges relied on to hear the children's replies was shoddy equipment. Several children continued into the next round by spelling their words correctly, while others exited the stage after misspelling their words. And I was eager to get just one photo, so that I could get back to the office, edit and submit an image, and drive to east Baltimore to cover a community meeting.

The scene was setting up for a big blow-up. A youth came to the podium, held the microphone, and listened to a judge's request that he spell "capital." "Sure," I thought, "give him a word that can be spelled two different ways, like he would really know, at his age. Trick word," I argued to myself. The speaker system, whistling from a poor wireless system, didn't help the contestant one bit as he repeatedly asked the judges to say the word again. A Dell computer, one of several prizes for the winning contestant, hung in the balance, and hundreds of pairs of eyes pierced the dimly-lit auditorium, anxious for him to spell.

And then, he did it. "'Capital': K-A-P. . . ."

One of the judges, telling the child about the error, spelled "capital" on the loudspeaker.

Suddenly, the event became controversial.

"I said it was with a 'C,'" the boy said, looking over his shoulder. A collective moan rose from the audience as the judges paused to confer, with the result being that the boy was, in fact, wrong.

In the confusion, I grabbed one child that I photographed, took down his name, age, and school, and headed for the exit. Outside, the mother of the "capital" youth was outraged. "He studied for weeks, and he knew that name," she argued. "The sound system was screwed up. He knews that 'capital' isn't spelled with a 'K!' They're hurting the children the way they're doing it!"

I thought that she had a point. Perhaps the judges could have asked that all the children who misspelled words could be given a second chance, since they decided to give the children the words while standing next to them, after the "capital" problem. There were less than a handful of children who had misspelled words up to that point, and it seemed like they all had difficulty hearing just what the judges' words were.

But this is also the first year of the contest. The winner had no chance of advancing to the national spelling bee, because the contest was taking place the same day, in Washington. And there were bound to be quirks in the system, errors in execution, or missteps in judgement. The good thing is that the organizers have this year to iron out the bugs and polish the presentation for next year's contest, which will send the winner to the national spelling bee, which has grown since its first contest 80 years ago. They've grown because they've learned from their mistakes, and this is the first year that the contest was broadcast on national television.

The Baltimore Bee, which will be affiliated with the national contest, will also get better. People make mistakes. There would be no contest, if everyone got it right. It would get boring, if we were perfect. But failure happens only when we don't learn from our mistakes.

The Baltimore Bee made its share of flubs in its inaugural event, but it will get better. It will also grow, which will only be good for the future youngsters.

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