"When I told my mother I was doingthis, she howled," says Evan Solomon, the familiar CBC face and host of Canada's Super Speller, a new Halifax-produced series. "Then she dug up a spelling test I did so badly on I hid it behind a picture. Three out of 10. Boat: b-o-w-t."
So the dude can't spell. He's not the one competing for a $20,000 RESP by spelling as many words as he can in 40 seconds. That would be the roomful of nine- to 12-year-olds next door in a windowless classroom down in the guts of Saint Mary's University's mammoth McNally building. A Halifax contestant's teacher stands outside the door with a bouquet. Makeshift change rooms have been erected in each corner. Parents line the walls. Kids sit in clusters and pass around three dictionaries, a hardcover and two pockets.
"OK, someone ask me how to spell Supercalifragilisticexpialidoceous," one boy dares his group, but the girls in it are busy looking at photos on a pink digital camera.
Dr. Lynn Oldershaw, CBC's in-house developmental psychologist and "comfort person" on this shoot, does a lap of the room. "So guys, probably now would be a good time to think who needs to go to the washroom," she says. "'Cause you're gonna be sitting up there for awhile."
Today Canada's Super Speller is filming its eastern region semi-finals, featuring 16 kids, four from each province. The production has been travelling all summer, finding the country's best spellers initially through an online contest and whittling from there. It's part competition, part documentary series---more Spellbound than Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?, rewarding knowledge, not lack thereof.
"I'm just really surprised about the level of interest - This is not the Nerd Factor Anonymous."
Solomon, lumbering and friendly, is led upstairs to the set, past a table of doughnuts and cans of juice. Backstage, Jonathan Torrens holds a script. He's the voice of Jared Alpha Omega III, a virtual character who appears at the beginning of each competition to challenge the kids. He'll be the guy to beat in the final show, which takes place in October down at Acadia University. If Max Headroom had this technology, he'd look something like the decent silver-and-blue approximation of Torrens' own face.
"It is---I can't even spell this word---a behemoth," says Solomon backstage as a microphone wire is snaked up under his gray cardigan. "I expected this to be really competitive young people who loved to spell. I did not expect the cross-country excitement, the thousands of kids, the unbelievable online competition. I'm just really surprised about the level of interest. This is not Nerd Factor Anonymous. In my neighbourhood in Toronto, the kids were coming up to me, knowing that I'm at CBC, going, 'Are you involved in the Super Speller thing? We're doing this online competition.' There's something about spelling. Maybe it's because we all have to do it, we all know it, but it's great to lock off the camera and watch those kids."
The competition itself takes a little less than four hours to film thanks to an incredible showdown between two Nova Scotia girls in the final bout. Children cry when they lose. Parents cry when their kids win. (One PEI parent refuses to leave the audience to join his second-place son on stage, sending a wave of tsking through the couple-hundred-strong crowd.) Oldershaw makes her way in and out of the rows, escorting a sniffling girl back to her seat, crouching down at each aisle to check in with the contestants. Solomon's energy never wavers despite a lag in production during the sudden death match, forcing him to ask questions like, "Is it kinda fun to meet the other competitors?" or "What do you compete in outside of spelling?" and "Has anybody ever done a word scramble before?" (Word scrambles will be a new element in the final show.)
Finally, a winner is crowned and four kids move on, leaving a dozen disappointed children behind.
"It's heartbreaking when the kids lose---they've spent months and years practicing," says Solomon. "You get to know the kid, you get to know their story and then they don't make it? I'm a soft touch," he admits. "I'm a full dad, I just don't want to see that."