I’ve always enjoyed Spelling Bees, I participated in one as a child and misspelled the word car. That was a small bee, or if you like wordplay, a lowercased bee in my school’s lunchroom. The Bee I attended on May 28, 29 and 30 was a much bigger deal.
The first National Spelling Bee was ninety-four years ago, wasn’t sponsored by Scripps, and held at the new National Museum Auditorium in Washington, D.C. Before the match Calvin Coolidge hosted all nine of the contestants at the White House.
The 1925 Spelling Bee lasted ninety minutes. The winner, Frank Neuhauser of Kentucky (all of the participants were from Kentucky), won five-hundred dollars’ worth of twenty gold pieces and a gold medal.
2019’s National Scripps Spelling Bee contestants came from a pool of eleven million children from around the world, Germany, Jamaica, South Korea, Canada, the Bahamas, Ghana and the U.S., up to the age of 15. 562 competitors triumphed, in local and regional competitions, to earn their spot on the stage in the Maryland Ballroom of the Gaylord National Hotel.
I attended round two, the first onstage round of the Bee, on Tuesday, and kept going back until the finals culminated late Thursday night. One hundred and fourteen spellers took their seats on the grand and fluorescent lit stage in the first heat.
I’d never seen such a spectacle, it was like a really impressive game of Dance Dance Revolution. The background, which was a series of electric honeycombs, changed colors around a cartoon bumble bee. On both sides of the contestants were supersized movie screens. The platform where spellers spelled, was also a honeycomb, and the microphone automatically ascended and descended adjusting to the heights of its participants.
The first speller was 10-year-old Saisurya Lakkimsetti of Montgomery, Alabama. He was given the word energumen. He spelled it correctly and the crowd applauded. I was in for something special.
The moderator was the 1980 champion of the Bee, Dr. Jacques Bailly. He’s also the author of coffee table books with pictures of ice, sludge, goop, and sidewalks; a professor of classics at the University of Vermont; and the proud owner of a duck named Webster. He’s revered as a deity amongst the audience and competitors alike. I heard one person refer to him as a rock star, even though he seems pretty sedated and likes to drink hot water instead of coffee.
The first heat of contestants was impressive albeit large. I was surprised with the kid’s ability to spell far-out words such as fossiliferous and fra diavalo. 518 of the 567 would advance to the third round. The ones that didn’t left in a variety of ways.
Some of the losers sobbed, and continued sobbing, by summoning the tears of their ancestors. Some smiled and seemed to have detached from the situation as they skipped away.
When a speller gets a word right, a nice lady with a teacherly voice exclaims, “Correct!”
When a speller gets a word wrong, one of the big screens shows the lady’s teacherly hand slam down on a call bell. The contestant leaves stage-right to be greeted by one of two women, grief counselors of sorts, who sit the saddened students on a black wraparound couch. Here they are told, “You did great!”
A parent rushes from the crowd to their child, leading them through the aisles while they hang their prepubescent heads in shame. I gave, what I thought would be, an encouraging thumbs up to a loser. The tall child woefully looked away, burying his face in his mother’s neck.
The amount of support from both the parents and the audience is palpable. A wrong answer usually warrants loud applause and heartening cheers. In later rounds, standing ovations are commonplace.
468 of the 518 who advanced were eliminated in the next round. Only 50 would go on. If it sounds like a huge drop in contestants… it’s because it is. To whittle down the numbers, Bee organizers made all of the children complete a multiple-choice test of twenty-six vocabulary questions.
Those who were to advance were the test takers with the highest scores. I didn’t get it either, since it seems to defeat the whole purpose of the tournament. Even so, those remaining were the true crème de la crème, the Bee’s Knees if you will.
The words got progressively harder as the rounds went on and the children were relying heavily on their questions to Dr. Bailly.
They can ask about the origin of the word, other pronunciations, it in a sentence and repeating the word. The last is often the best because Dr. Bailly and the contestants get stuck in loops, ping-ponging pronunciations back and forth.
“Ranunculus.” “Ranunculus?” “Ranunculus.” “Ranunculus?” “Yes… ranunculus.” “Ranunculus.”
1980 Bee champion, Dr. Bailly, should’ve been a standup. His deadpan delivery of example sentences causes one to think he’s the love child of Ben Stein and Jim Gaffigan. Some sentences are funnier than others. “Julie believed she received an epistle of romance, but in reality, it was just a puppy wearing rain boots.”
And, “The vampire liked to think of herself less as someone who was lucifugous and more like someone who could rock a pair of sunglasses.”
He referenced Rihanna’s “Umbrella” at one point. The crowd softly chuckled.
The final rounds took place on Thursday beginning at 10 am. I was in the audience eating a donut when 14-year-old Blake Bouwman took the stage to correctly spell the word planirostral. This was only the beginning of a more grueling portion of the tournament. Children who were champions in their own regard, in their respective places of origin, were slowly being dispatched with words like perambulate, annus mirabilis, and praseodymium.
The huge blob of brace-faced contestants had become a mere droplet. A 13-year-old Colorado native was the first to misspell in round five. Her word was lychnoscope, which is a low side window of a church. She sat a few rows behind me, crying heavily for the next two hours.
Thursday night was different. It was televised on ESPN. Also, there were only sixteen contestants remaining.
The room felt electric. There were giant cranes swinging tracking cameras, and a corny host riling up the audience by putting hundred-dollar bills inside of lemons (magic). There were smiling hype men holding cardboard rectangles that said “APPLAUSE,” while the cameras shutoff for intermittent two-minute commercial breaks.
On an elevated platform in the back corner of the room ESPN correspondents, Matt Barrie and Paul Loeffler, commentated on the twists and turns of fortune for the spellers.
While the spellers spelled, either in triumph or defeat, there was immense tension in the air. The cameras would often cut to the finalists’ parents, showing them praying or sitting nervously, as letters for rarified words were mumbled through the microphone. Most of the time, the kids were correct, as said by the teacherly lady. Little by little the numbers dwindled down, until there were 11, 10, 9…
And then there were eight. The remaining spellers came from all over the country, all having different looks and lives and temperaments.
13-year-old Sohum Sukhatankar, who sported a crisp leather jacket, quickly rattled off letters and strolled back to his seat, his hands in his pockets. Huntsville, Alabama’s Erin Howard swayed nervously and recited her words a with cautious glee. Abhijay Kodali chuckled and nearly fainted after every word he got correct.
They were all incredibly gifted. I felt like I was watching Olympic athletes.
About three hours into the nightly rounds, before round seventeen was to commence, Dr. Bailly made an announcement.
He called the children, “The most phenomenal assemblage of super-spellers in the history of this storied competition… We’re throwing the dictionary at you, and so far, you are showing this dictionary who’s boss.”
He said that round twenty would be the final round and that anybody who correctly spelled in that round, which was only three rounds away, would be crowned champion. This meant that there could be, potentially, many co-champions. Prior to this night, the most co-champions Scripps had ever had was two. Everyone cheered for a few minutes.
It was around 11:30 p.m. and I think, as do others, that they had to keep the tournament from becoming a marathon due to child labor laws.
Nonetheless the audience could barely contain themselves, as Dr. Bailly spouted seemingly made-up words at the children: passacaglia; auftaktigkeit; imbirussu’; Jindyworobak; geeldikkop; taurokathapsia; karmadharaya; omphalopsychite.
They were unflappable, they were indefatigable, they were, as one announcer called them, “The Elite Eight.” It was as though they were part of a superhuman team, like the X-Men, only they all had the same power, which was spelling. Dr. Bailly would be Professor X.
Round twenty started and the room held its collective breath.
Rishik Gandhasri correctly spelled the word pendeloque, becoming champion. The crowd leapt to its feet. Next, Erin Howard correctly spelled erysipelas, and the crowd leapt to its feet. Then, Saketh Sundar correctly spelled. The crowd leapt to its feet. Shruthrika Padhy, Sohum Sukhatankar, Abhijay Kodali, Christopher Serrao, and Rohan Raja correctly spelled. The crowd was on its feet.
It was a historic moment, the room was practically exploding with positive emotion and celebration. The kids hugged each other while jumping up and down and confetti rained from the ceiling, as Adam P. Symson, President and CEO of the E.W. Scripps Company, presented them with a ceramic trophy that looked like a flower vase.
When he said the octo-champs would all get $50,000, the crowd lost their minds, people were pulling their hair out, the ESPN announcers flipped their table over.
I left the Maryland Ballroom of the Gaylord National Hotel with a very positive feeling. I felt good about the next generation of Americans. I felt the love and support of families and friends. I felt like humanity was too special to die out in a cataclysmic way and that we all deserve a second chance.
Then, I cursed everything I just thought… I missed my exit on the highway.