I went to the Scripps National Spelling Bee—and felt illiterate

Image: AP Photo / Carolyn Kaster
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National Harbor, Maryland

It’s the morning of Thursday, May 31, and the poorly-lit ballroom inside the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center is crammed with nervous kids and well wishers. We’re here for the final round of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, a nationally televised US competition in which more than 500 children compete to spell increasingly difficult English words.

Videos of proud parents are playing on loop on gigantic screens placed next to the stage, accompanied by cheerful pop music—Shakira and Panic! At the Disco. The 41 kids preparing for the fourth round of the competition, all between the ages of 11 and 15, look vaguely nauseous. Onstage, the spelling bee’s editorial director Corrie Loeffler, a three-time Bee participant herself, declares: “These athletes of the English language have practiced their sport.”

Well, I know nothing about sports. And up until two days ago, I knew nothing about spelling bees, either. But now I’m a full-fledged fan of at least one of those things, and I am excited for what’s to come. I’ve pored over the various betting websites that tabulate odds for every little detail of this strange competition, from whether the winner will have braces to the number of letters in the championship-winning word. I’ve picked out my own favorites, and checked out the frontrunners. (Sadly, most of my picks turn out to be wrong—I don’t have a promising future as a spelling bee bookie.)

The competition begins with Jake Faulk, a 14-year-old from Denver, Colorado. He spells the word “metatarsus” correctly, and thus begins my journey of having to google 90% of the words that these kids seem to miraculously know how to spell. In this case, it turns out that metatarsus is “a part of a human foot or of a hind foot in quadrupeds.” Oh, right, duh. I knew that.

We go through this routine several times—children half my age spell words correctly that I’ve never heard before. Then we get to the first 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 side of the main stage to wait for their parents (usually their moms) to come comfort them and usher them out. It’s pretty heartbreaking to see the kids waiting there, looking crushed. Luckily, for many if not most of the contestants, this isn’t their only shot at the Bee. Of this year’s 516 competitors, 113 have competed in the Scripps National Spelling Bee at least once before.

After the elimination of Doppalapudi, the atmosphere in the room seems a tad more strained. This is all fun and games, until it’s not. I hear the first word of the day that I actually know how to spell—”poutine”—going to Lauren Guo from Colorado, who spells it correctly. Over the course of the competition, I will realize that the only words I know how to spell—including “cantal” and “chaudfroid”—are French (which I speak) and have to do with food (which I love).

In the initial rounds, most students get their words right. Eliminations are rare. But when a kid gets a word wrong, their fellow competitors visibly squirm and avoid looking at one another. Who’s next? they are clearly thinking. The spelling bee is starting to remind me of the show Survivor, minus the isolated island. By now it’s 11 AM, and everyone is restless and hungry.

A series of inspiring videos plays at the start of every commercial break. We see dozens of kids preparing to drive or fly hundreds of mile to get to Maryland for the final, driving home the amount of time, money, and emotional labor both the parents and children have poured into a contest that most of them lose within the first day.

This year is a little different from previous Bees: The group of participants is twice as large, and about half of the 516 kids participating came despite not having won a regional spelling bee—the traditional pathway to Scripps. Under a new rules update (pdf), anyone who won a school-level bee could apply. But unlike other spellers, such contestants had to pay a $750 entrance fee out-of-pocket, as well as cover travel and lodging costs for the three days of the competition.

The world of spelling bees is hyper-competitive. Some parents spend as much as $200/hour on tutors (often former Bee participants or champions) to help their kids develop their phonetic and linguistic skills. Spelling bees sound quirky and quaint, but for the competitors and their families, they’re no easy lark—they involve years of training and hard work on the part of both students and their caregivers.

The competition resumes. On the video screens, the camera cuts to family members holding their breath while contestants spell increasingly ridiculous words on stage. One contestant’s little brother prays for her with his eyes closed every time; he doesn’t open his eyes until she’s spelled her word correctly. Some parents cry. Others just look like they’re about to puke. Amidst this emotional chaos, the children on the stage get through the four consecutive rounds of testing with more poise and calm than most of the adults I know are capable of.

The event can feel highly choreographed and stilted, because it is. But small moments of humor shine through. The judge asks Anson Cook of Virginia how he’s feeling when he gets up to the microphone. Cook answers, “Give me a word and I’ll tell you.” That kid is going far, I think to myself. Sadly, not in this competition, because he spells his word incorrectly and gets eliminated. A video shows one of the contestants playing the flute with her nose, and another shows a former contestant explaining why he lost his spelling bee: He thought “octopus” was “octopush.”

The Bee also features a child with a particularly inspiring story: Cameron Keith, a 12-year-old from Boulder, Colorado, who nearly died after being born prematurely. Today, he’s a healthy young boy. He entered his school’s bee “by accident” in the second grade, and he’s now among the top 40 spellers in the country. His parents and sister are beaming from the audience as they watch him spell “grivation” and “kriegspiel” correctly, before being felled by “chausses.”

By round seven, the competition is heating up. The empty chairs onstage are symbolic reminders of both past and potential failures. The judges are clearly increasing the level of difficulty of the words—it’s 1 PM, and there are still about 25 kids on the stage, about 10 too many for the primetime final. At this point, I’m familiar with a grand total of zero words, and the reporters sitting next to me at the media desk all have Merriam-Webster tabs open on their laptops. Even when their kids spell words correctly, parents look at the judges with disapproval in their eyes—as in, how the heck is my 12-year-old supposed to know how to spell “culicide?” (Erin Howard does, apparently.)

When a child does spell a word correctly, the parents around me beam with a mixture of pride and complete amazement. I am sitting next to Shalini Shankar, who is as close to a celebrity as the spelling bee world gets. She is a professor of linguistic anthropology and South Asian culture at Northwestern University, and she is writing a book about the role of the spelling bees in the South Asian diaspora community in the United States. She’s been attending the Scripps National Spelling Bee since 2013, she tells me.

Shankar becomes my unofficial guide into this world, and she explains that something called a “lawnmower round” is about to start, meaning that judges are about to seriously step up the heat in order to winnow down the pool to 15 finalists. That means many more contestants are about to get eliminated—the kids don’t know what they’re in for. I don’t either.

The first word of the lawnmower round is a New Caledonian tree name—”niaouli.” So there’s that. Amith Vasantha from California spells it incorrectly (who in the world can blame him), and he gets eliminated. The next word sounds like “beetle” but is, in fact, not beetle. It is “baetyl,” and it means “a roughly shaped stone (such as a meteorite) held sacred or worshipped as of divine origin.” Enya Hubers from Canada actually gets it right. These kids are geniuses and I, a mere mortal, feel increasingly intimidated by the fact that I appear not to know most of the English dictionary.

As the words continue to increase in difficulty, Shankar tells me that the kids have gotten so much better over the years that judges have to use the obscure words they once saved for the primetime final by the sixth and seventh rounds. The bloodbath continues, and I can’t help but notice Shruthika Padhy’s family. Her little brother is hiding from the stress under the hood of his jacket, and her mother looks like she has been holding her breath since the beginning of the competition. They perfectly encapsulate how most of the audience is feeling at this point.

By 2:30 PM, the stage is starting to look mighty empty. The room goes quiet. There are only 18 kids left on stage—many more girls than boys—and a rumor is going around that the judges might allow more kids than usual to advance into the primetime finals. All the contestants are hanging in there, even as words get increasingly ridiculous—“uraeus,” “ascyphous,” and “thymiaterion” are just some of the few that we’ve seen in the second half of this round.

And finally, it’s over. The judges allow an unprecedented 16 kids into the primetime final, set to take place at 8:30 PM that evening. Nine of the finalists are girls, and 7 are boys. One of the finalists is just 11 years old. They hail from California, Texas, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, Indiana, Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, and Canada. But what they have in common isn’t a place of origin or an age or gender. They’re warriors of the English language, and they’re getting ready for their next battle.

The stakes are high. The first place winner will take home $42,500 and a host of other prizes, including the complete reference library from Merriam-Webster, a media trip to New York City and Hollywood, and a pizza party for his or her school. The runner-up will get $30,000, and the third- and fourth-place winners will take home $20,000 and $10,000, respectively. And they will join an elite lineage: Previous winners have gone on to have successful careers, many of them in math, computer science, and physics.

I caught up with Tara Singh, one of the finalists, as she got off the stage. I’d been waiting to talk to her all day but she was—understandably—too busy studying and concentrating before the day started to speak with me. Now, I waited for her by the stage exit with her parents, like a groupie waiting to see her favorite band. I felt strangely proud of this teenage girl 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 frighteningly calm periods, only to be hit with the nerves again before I spell,” she explains. But, she says, “once you’re on stage, in front of the mic, everything goes silent and I just focus on the word and my spelling.”

I pass by two women sporting matching orange shirts with one of the contestants’ faces—Abhijay Kodali—printed on them. They tell me their names are Julie Winkler and Kim Mardige. They’re Kodali’s homeroom and language arts teachers, and they’ve come all the way from Texas to support him, as they have for the last six spelling bees he’s participated in. I ask them what he thinks of their T-shirts. He’s come around, they tell me, even though he hates being in the spotlight. “He actually said, ‘They’re actually kind of cool,” Winkler says.

The televised primetime final did not disappoint in its excitement and drama. One judge serenades contestant Abhijay Kodali with Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off.” Someone watching the Bee apparently proposed to his girlfriend. At last, two contestants remain: 12-year-old Naysa Modi and 14-year-old Karthik Nemmani, both from Texas. The competition finally came to a dramatic end at 10:40 PM: Modi incorrectly spells “Bewusstseinslage,” while Nemmani victoriously spells the word “haecceitas” (what the haecc?). For the final word, Nemmani correctly spells “koinonia,” meaning “the Christian fellowship or body of believers.” Behold your 2018 Scripps National Spelling Bee champion.

I spare a thought for an anonymous Bee gambler I’d stumbled across, who correctly predicted the victor would be a boy with no braces. At least two people must be celebrating tonight—and hopefully the guy who proposed to his girlfriend, though I don’t mean to pry.

As I leave the competition, I can’t help but think that it’s really a beautiful thing. I’ve seen families cry and support each other through the wins and the losses; young kids making friends from across the country. And it’s all to celebrate the complexity, diversity, and beauty of the English language.

But the contestants are still just children, at the end of the day. I ask Tara Singh how she’s feeling when she first gets off the stage. “I’m really tired and kind of hungry,” she confesses. Honestly, same.

This reporting is part of a series supported by a grant from the Bernard van Leer Foundation. The author’s views are not necessarily those of the Bernard van Leer Foundation.