However, doctors warn that problems can occur. "Freakouts do happen," Katie's father, a bull rider, explains. "But those can be managed with medications. Her bars are also electrified. Again, it's all about positive reinforcement."
400 miles away in Freeport, Michigan, the Studebaker family eschews traditional spelling bee training for their own methods. "We were not happy with the results crate training gave us," Nancy Studebaker explains. "Crate training is all well and good, but where's the embarrassment, the shame? These are the key ingredients to training a child to do anything, such as learning to talk or tying their shoes."
Anthony Studebaker having a "misspelling". That doesn't mean that the Studebaker's training methods are inhumane. On the contrary, they are quite positive. "We learned about positive reinforcement from our friends at Scripps," Mrs. Studebaker says with her arm around her son Anthony. "Whenever Anthony spells a word incorrectly he uncontrollably soils himself no matter where he is. When Anthony finally spells a word correctly the positive reinforcement kicks in and he spares himself the embarrassment of public defecation. By putting the outcome in his hands, he has some sense of control over his life that so few children have."
"If he doesn't want to have a 'misspelling', well, he'll spell correctly," Mrs. Studebaker adds, smiling.
Breeding children to spell is a relatively new phenomenon that is taking the bee by storm. Recent studies have shown that spelling ability is genetic. No amount of training can take a child beyond what he or she can already spell. At the CryoGen research facility in Mexico City American scientists are testing the genes that control spelling and selectively breeding the superior specimens.
"This is specimen 409-B, or, 'Tracy'," a scientist, who wears a black mask and refuses to let us use his real name or voice, explains while taking us on a tour of the embryo room. "This child will grow up to become a national champion. She contains a chromosome that controls pretentiousness. We've used radioactive waves to mutate it to 100,000 times its normal intensity.
"If placed inside a ridiculously pretentious overbearing mother who accomplished nothing before marrying a rich businessman who has since grown tired of her appearance and has been cheating on her for nine years and the only thing that keeps her going is living through her daughter who will someday make the same mistakes she did, there is no stopping the depth of words this child may be able to spell one day. I'm talking words that don't even exist. That's how good she'll be."
Children bred for spelling don't learn the way regular children do. "We don't read them Dr. Seuss or Charlotte's Web," says one parent who has gone through the spelling breeders program at CyroGen. "That's kid's stuff. To be a truly legendary speller you must forget the basics and go straight for the words nobody ever uses or even knew existed.
"Sure, by not knowing words like 'this', 'or' and 'the', she is practically worthless after age 15 when she is no longer cute enough to compete in spelling bees. That's why CyroGen has assured us that we can sell her back to them for research purposes after she is all used up. We'll have the trophy by then anyway."
Every year more and more international competitors are entering the Scripps spelling bee. Can they be stopped?Halfway across the world Russia is getting into the spelling bee game. Since the fall of communism Russian involvement in American spelling bees has increased dramatically. While Russian children must wear patches that signify their nationality, bee officials state that the practice is not discriminatory.
Now that Scripps is being televised on ABC and ESPN the spelling bee fad is taking the nation by storm. But is it a fad or is it here to stay? Can the images of children crying after they spell a word incorrectly and shame their parents and country keep a nation spellbound? If the initial spelling bee mania is any indication, the answer is a resounding yes.
Catch the Scrips National Spelling Bee Challange this Wednsday at 8PM on ACB.
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