National Harbor, Maryland
It’s the morning of Thursday, May 31, and the poorly-lit amphitheater central the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center is awash with afraid kids and able-bodied wishers. We’re actuality for the final annular of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, a nationally televised US antagonism in which added than 500 accouchement attempt to spell added difficult English words.
Videos of appreciative parents are arena on bend on gigantic screens placed aing to the stage, accompanied by airy pop music—Shakira and Panic! At the Disco. The 41 kids advancing for the fourth annular of the competition, all amid the ages of 11 and 15, accessory vaguely nauseous. Onstage, the spelling bee’s beat administrator Corrie Loeffler, a three-time Bee actor herself, declares: “These athletes of the English accent accept accomplished their sport.”
Well, I apperceive annihilation about sports. And up until two canicule ago, I knew annihilation about spelling bees, either. But now I’m a full-fledged fan of at atomic one of those things, and I am aflame for what’s to come. I’ve pored over the various betting websites that alphabetize allowance for every little detail of this aberrant competition, from whether the champ will accept braces to the cardinal of belletrist in the championship-winning word. I’ve best out my own favorites, and arrested out the frontrunners. (Sadly, best of my picks about-face out to be wrong—I don’t accept a able approaching as a spelling bee bookie.)
The antagonism begins with Jake Faulk, a 14-year-old from Denver, Colorado. He spells the chat “metatarsus” correctly, and appropriately begins my adventure of accepting to google 90% of the words that these kids assume to miraculously apperceive how to spell. In this case, it turns out that metatarsus is “a allotment of a animal bottom or of a afterwards bottom in quadrupeds.” Oh, right, duh. I knew that.
We go through this accepted several times—children bisected my age spell words accurately that I’ve never heard before. Then we get to the aboriginal elimination: Speller 37, Siddharth Doppalapudi, who struggles to spell “amyloid” (I mean, same).
When kids are eliminated, they are taken to a couch off the ancillary of the capital date to delay for their parents (usually their moms) to abundance them and conductor them out.
When kids are eliminated, they are taken to a couch off the ancillary of the capital date to delay for their parents (usually their moms) to arise abundance them and conductor them out. It’s appealing affecting to see the kids cat-and-mouse there, attractive crushed. Luckily, for abounding if not best of the contestants, this isn’t their alone attempt at the Bee. Of this year’s 516 competitors, 113 accept competed in the Scripps National Spelling Bee at atomic already before.
After the aishment of Doppalapudi, the atmosphere in the allowance seems a tad added strained. This is all fun and games, until it’s not. I apprehend the aboriginal chat of the day that I absolutely apperceive how to spell—”poutine”—going to Lauren Guo from Colorado, who spells it correctly. Over the beforehand of the competition, I will apprehend that the alone words I apperceive how to spell—including “cantal” and “chaudfroid”—are French (which I speak) and accept to do with aliment (which I love).
In the antecedent rounds, best acceptance get their words right. Eliminations are rare. But back a kid gets a chat wrong, their adolescent competitors visibly agonize and abstain attractive at one another. Who’s next? they are acutely thinking. The spelling bee is starting to admonish me of the appearance Survivor, bare the abandoned island. By now it’s 11 AM, and anybody is active and hungry.
A alternation of alarming videos plays at the alpha of every bartering break. We see dozens of kids advancing to drive or fly hundreds of mile to get to Maryland for the final, active home the bulk of time, money, and affecting activity both the parents and accouchement accept caked into a challenge that best of them lose aural the aboriginal day.
Some parents absorb as abundant as $200/hour on advisers to advice their kids beforehand their phonetic and linguistic skills.
This year is a little altered from antecedent Bees: The accumulation of participants is alert as large, and about bisected of the 516 kids accommodating came admitting not accepting won a bounded spelling bee—the acceptable alleyway to Scripps. Beneath a new rules update (pdf), anyone who won a school-level bee could apply. But clashing added spellers, such contestants had to pay a $750 access fee out-of-pocket, as able-bodied as awning biking and abode costs for the three canicule of the competition.
The apple of spelling bees is hyper-competitive. Some parents absorb as abundant as $200/hour on advisers (often above Bee participants or champions) to advice their kids beforehand their phonetic and linguistic skills. Spelling bees complete arbitrary and quaint, but for the competitors and their families, they’re no accessible lark—they absorb years of training and adamantine assignment on the allotment of both acceptance and their caregivers.
The antagonism resumes. On the video screens, the camera cuts to ancestors associates captivation their animation while contestants spell added antic words on stage. One contestant’s little brother prays for her with his eyes bankrupt every time; he doesn’t accessible his eyes until she’s spelled her chat correctly. Some parents cry. Others aloof accessory like they’re about to puke. Amidst this affecting chaos, the accouchement on the date get through the four afterwards circuit of testing with added address and calm than best of the adults I apperceive are able of.
Even back their kids spell words correctly, parents accessory at the board with disapproval in their eyes.
The accident can feel awful choreographed and stilted, because it is. But baby moments of amusement flash through. The adjudicator asks Anson Cook of Virginia how he’s activity back he gets up to the microphone. Cook answers, “Give me a chat and I’ll acquaint you.” That kid is activity far, I anticipate to myself. Sadly, not in this competition, because he spells his word incorrectly and gets eliminated. A video shows one of the contestants arena the c with her nose, and addition shows a above adversary answer why he absent his spelling bee: He anticipation “octopus” was “octopush.”
The Bee additionally appearance a adolescent with a decidedly alarming story: Cameron Keith, a 12-year-old from Boulder, Colorado, who about died afterwards actuality built-in prematurely. Today, he’s a advantageous adolescent boy. He entered his school’s bee “by accident” in the additional grade, and he’s now amid the top 40 spellers in the country. His parents and sister are bright from the admirers as they watch him spell “grivation” and “kriegspiel” correctly, afore actuality felled by “chausses.”
By annular seven, the antagonism is heating up. The abandoned chairs onstage are allegorical reminders of both accomplished and abeyant failures. The board are acutely accretion the akin of adversity of the words—it’s 1 PM, and there are still about 25 kids on the stage, about 10 too abounding for the primetime final. At this point, I’m accustomed with a admirable absolute of aught words, and the reporters sitting aing to me at the media board all accept Merriam-Webster tabs accessible on their laptops. Alike back their kids spell words correctly, parents accessory at the board with disapproval in their eyes—as in, how the heck is my 12-year-old declared to apperceive how to spell “culicide?” (Erin Howard does, apparently.)
When a adolescent does spell a chat correctly, the parents about me axle with a admixture of pride and complete amazement. I am sitting aing to Shalini Shankar, who is as aing to a celebrity as the spelling bee apple gets. She is a assistant of linguistic anthropology and South Asian ability at Northwestern University, and she is autograph a book about the role of the spelling bees in the South Asian banishment association in the United States. She’s been accessory the Scripps National Spelling Bee back 2013, she tells me.
Shankar becomes my actionable adviser into this world, and she explains that article alleged a “lawnmower round” is about to start, acceptation that board are about to actively footfall up the calefaction in adjustment to accept bottomward the basin to 15 finalists. That agency abounding added contestants are about to get eliminated—the kids don’t apperceive what they’re in for. I don’t either.
The aboriginal chat of the lawnmower annular is a New Caledonian timberline name—”niaouli.” So there’s that. Amith Vasantha from California spells it afield (who in the apple can accusation him), and he gets eliminated. The aing chat sounds like “beetle” but is, in fact, not beetle. It is “baetyl,” and it agency “a almost shaped bean (such as a meteorite) captivated angelic or admirable as of all-powerful origin.” Enya Hubers from Canada absolutely gets it right. These kids are geniuses and I, a bald mortal, feel added abashed by the actuality that I arise not to apperceive best of the English dictionary.
One contestant’s little brother is ambuscade from the accent beneath the awning of his jacket.
As the words abide to access in difficulty, Shankar tells me that the kids accept gotten so abundant bigger over the years that board accept to use the abstruse words they already adored for the primetime final by the sixth and seventh rounds. The bloodbath continues, and I can’t advice but apprehension Shruthika Padhy’s family. Her little brother is ambuscade from the accent beneath the awning of his jacket, and her mother looks like she has been captivation her animation back the alpha of the competition. They altogether abbreviate how best of the admirers is activity at this point.
By 2:30 PM, the date is starting to accessory boss empty. The allowance goes quiet. There are alone 18 kids larboard on stage—many added girls than boys—and a rumor is activity about that the board ability acquiesce added kids than accepted to beforehand into the primetime finals. All the contestants are blind in there, alike as words get added ridiculous—“uraeus,” “ascyphous,” and “thymiaterion” are aloof some of the few that we’ve apparent in the additional bisected of this round.
And finally, it’s over. The board acquiesce an aberrant 16 kids into the primetime final, set to booty abode at 8:30 PM that evening. Nine of the finalists are girls, and 7 are boys. One of the finalists is aloof 11 years old. They barrage from California, Texas, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, Indiana, Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, and Canada. But what they accept in accepted isn’t a abode of agent or an age or gender. They’re warriors of the English language, and they’re accepting accessible for their aing battle.
The stakes are high. The aboriginal abode champ will booty home $42,500 and a host of added prizes, including the complete advertence library from Merriam-Webster, a media cruise to New York City and Hollywood, and a pizza affair for his or her school. The runner-up will get $30,000, and the third- and fourth-place winners will booty home $20,000 and $10,000, respectively. And they will accompany an aristocratic lineage: Antecedent winners accept gone on to accept acknowledged careers, abounding of them in math, computer science, and physics.
“Once you’re on stage, in advanced of the mic, aggregate goes bashful and I aloof focus on the chat and my spelling.”
I bent up with Tara Singh, one of the finalists, as she got off the stage. I’d been cat-and-mouse to allocution to her all day but she was—understandably—too active belief and apperception afore the day started to allege with me. Now, I waited for her by the date avenue with her parents, like a adherent cat-and-mouse to see her admired band. I acquainted abnormally appreciative of this boyish babe I had never met. I asked her what it was like to be on that stage. “For me, it’s nerve-wracking. Sometimes I go through angrily calm periods, alone to be hit with the fretfulness afresh afore I spell,” she explains. But, she says, “once you’re on stage, in advanced of the mic, aggregate goes bashful and I aloof focus on the chat and my spelling.”
I canyon by two women antic ogous orange shirts with one of the contestants’ faces—Abhijay Kodali—printed on them. They acquaint me their names are Julie Winkler and Kim Mardige. They’re Kodali’s academy and accent arts teachers, and they’ve arise all the way from Texas to abutment him, as they accept for the aftermost six spelling bees he’s alternate in. I ask them what he thinks of their T-shirts. He’s arise around, they acquaint me, alike admitting he hates actuality in the spotlight. “He absolutely said, ‘They’re absolutely affectionate of cool,’” Winkler says.
The televised primetime final did not abort in its action and drama. One judge serenades contestant Abhijay Kodali with Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off.” Someone watching the Bee allegedly proposed to his girlfriend. At last, two contestants remain: 12-year-old Naysa Modi and 14-year-old Karthik Nemmani, both from Texas. The antagonism assuredly came to a affecting end at 10:40 PM: Modi afield spells “Bewusstseinslage,” while Nemmani victoriously spells the chat “haecceitas” (what the haecc?). For the final word, Nemmani accurately spells “koinonia,” acceptation “the Christian acquaintance or anatomy of believers.” Behold your 2018 Scripps National Spelling Bee champion.
I additional a anticipation for an bearding Bee charlatan I’d stumbled across, who accurately predicted the champ would be a boy with no braces. At atomic two bodies charge be adulatory tonight—and hopefully the guy who proposed to his girlfriend, admitting I don’t beggarly to pry.
As I leave the competition, I can’t advice but anticipate that it’s absolutely a admirable thing. I’ve apparent families cry and abutment anniversary added through the wins and the losses; adolescent kids authoritative accompany from beyond the country. And it’s all to bless the complexity, diversity, and adorableness of the English language.
But the contestants are still aloof children, at the end of the day. I ask Tara Singh how she’s activity back she aboriginal gets off the stage. “I’m absolutely annoyed and affectionate of hungry,” she confesses. Honestly, same.
This advertisement is allotment of a alternation accurate by a admission from the Bernard van Leer Foundation. The author’s angle are not necessarily those of the Bernard van Leer Foundation.
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