At the 2010 Scripps National Spelling Bee
by Jordan Carr
There was a moment, at the 2010 Scripps National Spelling Bee this weekend, when the stylishly-hatted 11-year-old David M. Habibi got the word “schadenfreude,” and after exclaiming “Yes!” at getting a word he knew, spelled it correctly. And then while he was walking back to his seat, pronouncer and 1980 champion Dr. Jacques Bailly all but pulled a Mean Joe Greene on young David by sneakily congratulating him, as David was walking away, on having just become a big brother.
At other points, after most spellers had been eliminated, one could look around and see fathers and sons playing along and trying to spell the words that the contestants on stage were grappling with.
If you find those moments funny or in any sort of way endearing, then spelling bees are for you. If not, you have a cold, hard heart.
HOW THE SPELLING BEE WORKS
The public Bee begins with the second and third rounds, after the surprisingly not difficult computerized round. These three rounds determine the semifinalists. Starting with round two, the speller steps forward, maybe adjusts the microphone, and then pronouncer Dr. Bailly says a word. The speller and pronouncer repeat the word at each other over and over again until the speller has it down correctly, at some points even requiring a third party to intervene and insist that the speller look at Dr. Bailly’s lips as he says the word.
After they get the pronunciation right, generally the spellers ask if there are alternate pronunciations, and Dr. Bailly either gives them or delivers his famous catchphrase: “I show just the one.”
Then the speller has the option of getting a definition, or explanation of “part of speech,” or having it used in a sentence. If the speller wants to clarify something, they are allowed to ask questions along the lines of “Is it from the Greek root â€˜syn’ meaning â€˜with’?” Other than that, they are on their own to figure it out.
It is hard to imagine any contest that agitates its audience’s sense of fairness more regularly than spelling bees (the issue of Armando Galarraga excepted). The scuttlebutt around this Bee was that, due to the overlong nature of last year’s competition, this year the words would be much more difficult. And it certainly seemed they were, especially as Anamika Veeramani’s winning words were preceded by five misses (one of which, “ochidore,” elicited horrified gasps when Dr. Bailly said that ochidore’s root was unknown).
Here is an underreported subplot: Veeramani was sponsored by the Cleveland Plain Dealer, a paper whose rising fortunes in the greater Cleveland area killed off rival newspaper the Cleveland Press, which was owned by the E.W. Scripps Company, sponsors of the Bee.
And the audience was agitated even before the organizers stopped in the middle of the 6th round so that they would have enough spellers (10) for the finals to be televised on ABC. It didn’t affect the outcome, but did leave some kids hopping mad that they missed out on a chance to meet Shaq and go on ABC. Yeah, Shaq showed up.
There were a few eye rolls when a boy by the name of Christian Suarez drew “vaquero,” and a knowing groan when Elizabeth Platz drew “gnocchi” in the 7th round after the prior night’s Bee-sponsored dinner, which featured that very dish.
Other instances of their competitiveness were just adorable though, such as two-time defending Canadian champion and finalist Laura Newcombe’s patriotic declaration that “We have a lot of great spellers and it’s time the world noticed.”
HOPES AND DREAMS
But let’s move away from the competitiveness and back to the earnestness because it is oh so present. For the Bee, the kids give some information about themselves, including but not limited to all their hopes and dreams. More than one kid aspires to be a professional athlete, which seems rather unlikely to say the least, and others have hilariously mediocre sports-related role models ranging from Cole “The Next Eric Montross” Aldrich to Derek Roy to Paul Konerko (for his good sportsmanship).
Far and away, the most popular future option though, is author. So, uh, the news stays bad for you, snubbed fiction writers, because in a generation’s time we are all going to be treated to a series of syntactically flawless works and perhaps even a chapter in the 25th anniversary edition of Outliers about why Indians are so good at spelling, where we’ll learn they do it in some way other than the way that people usually become good at stuff, or something.
Also, these kids really, really love geography bees, something called Mathcounts and Legos. My God, do they ever love Legos.
There are a lot of Indian kids, and for a group that makes up fewer than 1% of the American population, they make up something close to 20% of this year’s contestants, including the winner (and, perhaps more improbably, the North Dakotan representative, a state with an Asian population that accounts for .1% of the state’s 642,200 residents). This Bee actually had more contestants named “Aditya” than “John.” I’m not going to get into why this is the case, but theories abound.
But there are other trends that receive slightly less fanfare. For example, home schooling-my favorite being the one kid who will be appearing in an all-home school production of Merchant of Venice. Also popular among the kids: Jesus! A number of contestants listed Left Behind as a favored read, but the best religious irony of the contest was when a girl who listed Ayn Rand’s We the Living as a book she likes received the word “fleuron” and got a sentence involving bishops and prayer.
The Scripps Bee has the winning combination of high stakes (the grand prize is worth $40,000, with $30,000 in cash, and each word spelled correctly past the semifinals is worth money) and children. Not to say that parents are pinning their hopes and an insane amount of pressure on their young children, but when winner Anamika Veeramani said the prize was “Not just for me, but for my whole family,” she is most likely being more truthful than gracious.
The kids do seem to bear a tremendous weight, but the community is also supportive of one another-last year’s runner-up Tim Ruiter received a standing ovation upon elimination-and it does not seem they are all that much less adaptable to the real world than any youngster of their age. Even the most mocked speller of all time, Rebecca Sealfon, seems to have done quite well for herself, going to Princeton and Duke and even occasionally working as-get this!-a writer.
The Bee is a gathering of well-intentioned kids who have one thing they love and can do exceptionally well. That shines through and, to the extent that this event is popular, that’s much more the function of a desire to wistfully recall our own times as lame 8th graders than, thank God and/or Ayn Rand, a sense of schadenfreude at their expense.
Jordan Carr, the editor of Fiat Lux, the blog of the Stanford Review, is one of The Awl’s summer reporters.