Spelling Bee Champ -- at 58
That's why, as an adult, he was so thrilled when he won the 2011 AARP Spelling Bee. Johnson, 58, a La Grange, Ga.-based clinical psychologist by trade, plans to defend his title at this year's contest, which will again be held in August in Cheyenne, Wyo.
In an interview with SecondAct.com, Johnson explains why spelling bees are a good pastime for forty- and fifty-somethings as well as schoolkids, and how winning is more than just a matter of memorizing the dictionary.
SA: It's amazing to think that you didn't compete in a spelling bee until you were in your late forties. Why?
TJ: I had a deprived childhood [laughs]. We had informal bees in class in Mississippi but nothing formal. I don't think I ever knew in those days that there were big national contests. But I was a pretty good speller even then, so I probably would have been interested.
SA: What makes for a good speller?
TJ: In my case, it wasn't just about spelling. I always was interested in words. In school, we had vocabulary class, and we would have to take the words on the list and make sentences from them. I always had a knack for that, for language and phrasing. And I enjoyed it. When I was a kid, I collected coins and baseball cards, but I also collected words -- not physically, by writing them down or something, but in my head.
If I heard or saw a word that I didn't know, I would look it up in the dictionary. But then, after I did that, I would keep browsing, and look up related words, or simply study ones I saw on the pages that looked interesting. From there, I got interested in etymology, the origins of words. That really was my chief interest for a long time, and continued into adulthood. When I was getting my Ph.D. in psychology at Ole Miss, I liked learning and analyzing all the technical terms in psychology and pharmacology. When I got a textbook, the first thing I would turn to was the glossary. I would study that before I actually read the text.
I continued indulging my passion for words when I became a psychology professor at La Grange College, where I taught for 22 years before going into private practice. When I was teaching, I'd write a technical word on the board, and then I'd break it down for the students -- you know, "here is the origin of this word, and it's easy to remember the meaning if you look at the root." I think that made me a better teacher, too. But being a good speller just kind of came along with that.
SA: When did you enter your first adult spelling bee?
TJ: It was in 2000. In La Grange, they put on an adult spelling bee to raise money for charity, with teams from different local institutions. I had a colleague in the psychology department at La Grange who was a word buff, too, so we decided to do it together, for fun. We had three weeks to prepare, and we studied so much that we figured nobody was going to beat us. And we did end up winning. It was a lot of fun, but I didn't think about competing again for years, until I came across an article online about the AARP Spelling Bee and saw a picture of the winner. I remember thinking, gosh, I wish I'd known about this. But I saw that the 2011 contest was coming up, so I entered that. Fortunately, I had about four months to prepare. I worked pretty hard at it.
SA: How do you train for a spelling contest?
TJ: Well, they put the lists of words from previous contests up on the web, so the first thing I did was look at those. I was surprised to discover that a lot of them were words that are rarely used, especially when you got into the ones given to the top 10 contestants. It's safe to say that a lot of them are words that you'll never see anywhere but in a spelling bee.
But a lot of the preparation was just the same thing that I normally do. I didn't really keep a set schedule with a certain number of hours. I just looked at the dictionary all the time. I'd be watching a football game or a UFC fight on TV, and I would pick up the dictionary and start looking at words while I was sitting there. That way, it wasn't drudgery. And actually, psychologists know from studies that spaced practice, where you do small amounts on a regular basis, is more effective than intensive cram sessions. That's actually aversive to learning.
SA: When you say "look at the dictionary," there must be more to it than that.
TJ: Sure. You study words and how they're put together. You learn the adjective and adverb forms and look for differences in spelling -- sometimes, there's just one letter that's different. You have to be meticulous about it and get down to the really picky stuff.
SA: You must know the spellings for thousands of words. How do you keep all that in your head?
TJ: You develop systems to do that. I have an advantage because of my professional background. I know about learning theory and how the brain stores and retrieves information. For example, I use images sometimes as a mnemonic tool. Take the word chincherinchee, which is a kind of African herb. I'll look up a picture of it on the internet so I can visualize it. But I'll also make up other images based on the syllables. I'll imagine a chin, and a chair, and then an inch on a ruler.
SA: You obviously enjoy words and the challenge of learning them, but do you think studying spelling and competing in spelling bees is a beneficial hobby for adults?
TJ: I think so. It's a way to keep your mind sharp. Of course, there are other ways to do that, too, such as doing puzzles or Sudoku. But if you happen to like words, it's fun, and there's the social aspect of competing and doing it with other enthusiasts. There are a lot more adult spelling bees around than there used to be. The AARP's bee, I think, is the most demanding one, but you don't have to enter a national competition.
There are local spelling bees, which a lot of times are sponsored by charities that use the entry fees for fundraising. That's nice because you get a chance to do something for your community as well as get your feet wet and see if you want to compete at a more demanding level. In New York there's a bar that has a spelling bee. (Editor's Note: Johnson was referring to the Williamsburg Spelling Bee, which has become an institution in that hip Brooklyn neighborhood.) I'm all for fifty-somethings doing something to keep their minds nimble.
[Related: Online Games Grown-Ups Play]
Here's a video clip of the 2011 AARP Spelling Bee finals.
Previous Post: 5 Great Books For Science Lovers and Other Geeks
Next Post: Survey: Recession Stalled Encore Career Changes