Christopher Heck, a finalist at this week's Scripps National Spelling Bee, was eliminated when he was unable to spell the word "girlfriend." Bee champion David Galldor then clinched the title by successfully spelling "autochthonous," a word meaning "indigenous."
Heck, 13, gamely tried to spell "girlfriend" for several minutes, asking its origin (English), definition ("a favored female companion or sweetheart") and its use in a sentence. Bee Master Michael Winchester provided Heck with the sentence "You will never have a girlfriend," prompting the boy to break into tears and run off the stage.
Heck's mother, Bonnie, who homeschools her three children in the dining room of their Peoria, Illinois, home, said this is not the first time her son has been tripped up by a seemingly simple word.
"Last year in the Illinois state competition he was knocked out when he failed to spell 'popularity' correctly," she said. "It was a word he had no concept of or experience with."
Spelling Bee officials say it is an unwritten rule that Bee Masters do not ask spellers words that may have negative emotional connotations for the children.
"It is our goal to not upset the children or remind them of their status as social outcasts," said Beth Riley, director of the Spelling Bee. "That why you'll never see words like 'dork,' 'gayboy,' 'nerd,' 'wedgie,' or 'loser' in the Spelling Bee. These kids hear those words enough on a day-to-day basis and don't need to deal with hearing them in the one place their special talents are celebrated."
Riley also stated that while such words may be simple for most people to spell, they can provide an enormous challenge to even the best child spellers.
"You have to realize what these kids go through each day at school or out in public," she said. "If you ask them to spell a word like 'queerbate,' a lot of them will freeze up because of all the emotional baggage they have tied to a word like that. They're completely unable to spell it, and many of them will wet their pants upon hearing such words. I've seen it happen. It's like a Pavlov's queerbate dog response."
Heck claims the Spelling Bee was only the second time he ever heard the word "girlfriend."
"I once heard it on television when I was staying at my cousin's house while my mother was giving birth to my little sister, so I know what it means," he said. "But that was the only time. We don't have a television at my house because my parents say TV is for proletariat ignoramuses."
Bee Master Winchester has been reprimanded about his choice of context sentence for Heck's word.
"I apologized to Heck for making him cry," said Winchester. "I didn't mean to do it, I just couldn't find the paper with the context sentence, so I simply said what came to my mind first. I looked up at that kid and all I could think was: 'You will never have a girlfriend.' I'm sorry he took it so personally."