We Have Protesters: 5 Ugly Truths Of The Spelling Bee
While most of today's middle-school-aged children are figuring out new ways to spell their favorite obscenities with numbers and Greek symbols on their phones, some people still value proper spelling. That's why we have spelling bees, and why ESPN has turned the Scripps National Spelling Bee into a glitzy high-pressure sporting event.
We sat down with a speller who competed in the National Bee in 2004. He told us about how ...
The Bee Hides A Lot Behind The Scenes
During my year in the National Spelling Bee, a competitor named Akshay Buddiga fainted halfway through "alopecoid." The official explanation was that he'd experienced hypoglycemia. The real reason was either that he hadn't eaten in days, or that the intense pressure of being under the spotlight with high expectations from his friends and family got to him. Either way, his nerves had been shot to shit. Akshay was able to come back and spell his word correctly, before passing out again once he got back in his chair:
But the biggest behind-the-scenes secret was also the biggest source of comfort, and they literally call it the Comfort Room. As soon as you misspell a word, you're ejected from a world in which you've been competing for months, if not years. When that bell rings, you're experiencing your first loss on the most public stage ever, and that can be a jarring moment for a kid. Then you're sent offstage to a holding room, trying to fathom what just happened, fighting the sinking feeling of dread ...
"Words fail me. And I failed words."
Fortunately, that room is stocked. For a chubby kid, it's heaven. Sugary comfort foods are everywhere -- cookies, brownies, the whole nine yards. But I'll be honest: When I lost, I felt relieved. For about five years, every year, every summer, I'd gone through a lot of preparation in my attempts to get to the National Spelling Bee. It almost felt futile, because each year it seemed that no matter how much prep I had done, I always ended up losing. Only one kid is going to emerge victorious at the end (well, usually); the other ten million or so competitors hear the dreaded bell of failure.
When I left the stage, I was like Tom Hanks at the end of Castaway. I had no idea what I was going to do next. But instead of joining my sobbing, brokenhearted compatriots, I was simply trying to soak in as much of the experience as I could.
One of the weirdest things? It's the fact that ...
There Are Protesters
Whatever you'd expect to encounter at an event like this -- pressure so intense that kids get ill, the strange fact that you're on ESPN of all channels, knowing that millions of people are watching you -- you wouldn't expect a lot of protesters. What's there even to protest? It's not like the losing kids are dropped through a trapdoor into a basement full of crocodiles.
"Crocodiles? Don't be silly ... Where do you think the name came from?"
Well, some of the demonstrators have their hearts in the right places, and are protesting on behalf of the dyslexic population. Apparently, our nation's fascination with proper spelling has resulted in discriminatory hiring practices towards dyslexics, which I guess makes sense.
"Just because I can't spell 'equality' doesn't mean I don't deserve it."
The rest of the protesters, as far as I can tell, are veering off the deep end. They range from English "purists" who want us to spell like we still fly the Union Jack, to groups who want us to have Cyrillic-style phonetic pronunciation (read: like the Russians), to groups who straight-up don't want anyone speaking English. Each category of protester can consist of anything between a lone person who wasn't hugged enough as a child to around 50 people. That may not seem like a ton, but get them all in one place, and it can get almost overwhelming -- especially if you're an elementary school child frantically trying to remember whether or not "iridociclitis" has one R or two. You'll see enough signs to have a miniature panic attack as you wonder if you really have been accidentally spelling the word "love" wrong your entire life.
"Dammit, don't we have a basement for these people?"
But at least I didn't have to wear a bee costume.
Most Kids Start Against Their Will
If you watch the broadcasts, you probably don't assume you're watching kids who were dragged there against their will, like tributes forced to compete in the Hunger Games. But that was the case for me, and for lots of the other contestants I met along the way.
Bees are basically child beauty pageants for nerdy parents.
Growing up in an Indian household, there's a certain pressure to succeed in academics, even outside of the classroom. So in the summer of 1999, my dad enrolled me in the spelling bee at a local Indian-American academic showcase -- without telling me first. When I found out I was participating, I started bawling. I thought we were just there to watch the damn thing.
It was a double elimination bee, and I misspelled my first word, "arduous." I remember seeing my dad in the audience, sort of looking down at the ground. He would later tell me that at that point, he wasn't sure spelling bees would be my "thing." But, surprise surprise, I won the damn thing. Despite waltzing home with a trophy in hand, my mom didn't believe it. My grades weren't at the top of the class, so this was the first positive validation of my brains. From that point on, I won the local competition every time I entered, until I turned 14 and couldn't compete anymore. As I'd later learn, these local competitions are huge, especially among immigrant families who want their children to be able to read and write well. And they work -- since 1999, 14 of the national winners have been Indian-American.
This year, two Indian Americans won. Ditto last year. Because the bee ran out of words.
At the hotel where the National Bee puts you up (one of the nicest in D.C.), there are areas where spellers meet up to have fun away from their parents. Kids say they're going to go study on their own, but that's a lie. It was a break where we could meet and hang out with each other. When we were with our parents, we were vicious competitors that needed solitude and concentration. But away from them, well, we were kids. We played Scrabble, because of course we did, and helped each other out. I'm pretty sure some of us learned more in those few hours with each other in the hotel than under our parents' tutelage.
And you need all the help you can get, because ...
There Is A Whole Universe Of Strange Words Out There
I recently graduated from an Ivy League university, and studying for the Bee is still the hardest thing I've ever done in my life.
Even if it was just about memorizing a dictionary (and it's not) you have to understand which dictionary I'm talking about. If you have a hardcover copy of a dictionary on your shelf, it's probably the thickest book you own. And that's almost certainly the abridged version. The official Bee words are culled from an unabridged version, which is about 50 percent thicker than a normal dictionary and requires a paid subscription to the Merriam-Webster website. And without that unabridged dictionary, you aren't going to do so hot in the Bee.
It's also one of the few books that need to be registered as a potential murder weapon.
If you're wondering how in the world a kid memorizes that whole book, well, that's not really how it works. Once you figure out the rules, you can study the spelling of root words and piece them together based on the definition. Take "cryophilic," for example. The prefix "cryo" comes from the word for freezing, and the "phil" root is derived from "philia," meaning love. So something that's cryophilic would thrive in cold temperatures. So learning thousands of these roots and potential combinations teaches you how to reverse engineer the spelling of a word you've never heard or read before.
The same way cryophiliacs reverse engineer freezers, then dip their genitals in them.
But even that is harder than it sounds. Remember that, moreso than any other language, English has a long history of borrowing from others. German, French, Latin, Greek, even Native American and Russian -- nearly every language has left its stamp. The result is a confusing mess of contradictory spelling and pronunciation rules. We've got homophones, homographs, and an alarming number of people who don't know the difference.
You could just call them both homonyms, but that would make you a bigot.
My father actually coded a computer program to help me study. But remember that any word or type of word you skim over could be the one that sinks you in the competition, so you're obsessively trying to make sure you don't miss anything. So let me repeat: My Ivy League university was easier.
You're A Spelling Bee Kid For Life
Competing in the National Spelling Bee garners you entry into a fraternity that few are sane enough to join. It follows you for life. I remember meeting Samir Patel back in 2004, when he was nine years old. I watched Alan Thicke call on him during some short-lived Fox game show and ask him how to spell a word. Samir got it wrong, and Thicke used this as an opportunity to be an asshat to a child on live television.
Also known as a "thickehead." Origin: Canadian.
The winner of the Bee gets tons of prizes, media tours, and sponsorships, but they also get the stigma of being "The Spelling Guy" for all eternity. It's weird, but at this point, I can't help but correct even my friends' spelling from time to time. Invariably, I'll get labeled a Grammar Nazi, but guess what? I suck at grammar.
In fact, a lot of spellers do. We all have wayyy above average (bordering pretentious) vocabularies, but many of us still don't write all that well. It's like we studied the spelling of words so hard that now we aren't exactly sure how to put them together in coherent sentences, which you can imagine might make dating a little weird.
James Joyce probably won the Irish Bee 10 years in a row.
The plus side is that I've found I pick up new languages relatively easily. I also don't have to use spell check. I've had people freak out at me for not using the spellchecker on a 20-page paper, only for them to use it and discover that only my last name was spelled incorrectly. Go figure.
Evan V. Symon is the interview finder guy for Cracked.
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