I Will Never Stop Dreaming of the National Spelling Bee

Not-so-little-known fact: I love spelling. The art of it, the act of it, and, since I believe everything can be made better by making it a competition, the proving of it, through what we here in the United States call the Spelling Bee. Some kids fantasize about hitting the winning home run in the World Series or winning an Academy Award. I dreamed of winning the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

This week is Bee Week, a week I eagerly anticipate every year. The official Twitter feed (@ScrippsBee) has provided a fantastic livetweet of every word, and I have found myself cheering for each speller who correctly spells the word and offering up a little prayer for those who missed theirs. That bell is not an easy one to hear: four-time competitor Karla Miller told NPR, “To this day when I hear that bell I get that frisson — that little shiver. When I hear that bell I’m thinking, oh no, I failed at something. And then I realize, no, somebody’s order has come up.” That sinking disappointment is a feeling every former spelling bee participant knows too well–but not everyone understands just how badly these particular kids want it, and how devastating it can be to lose your dreams in the time it takes for a bell to ring. If you’ve never seen the documentary “Spellbound,” which follows a handful of spellers through the 1999 Bee season, you really need to.

Now that the preliminary and semifinal rounds separated the glad-to-be-heres from the real contenders, today is the day that the 42 remaining spellers take the biggest stage of all: the Maryland Ballroom at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center hotel in Oxon Hill, Maryland (just outside of Washington, D.C.) for the Final Rounds.

Like any competition, the Bee overflows with stories of triumph and defeat, of favorites and underdogs, of quirky personalities and flashes of humor. Did you know the Indian community has its own minor-league spelling bee circuit? It’s no coincidence Indian spellers make up such a large percentage of the Bee, and have won so many titles. Get that many 11-14 year olds in one place, particularly a bunch of word nerds who spend their free time memorizing word lists, and in six hours you will get more awkwardness (of the lovable, mostly relatable kind) than every other broadcast minute of ESPN combined. But these kids love spelling, and it shows. I mean really, have you ever been this excited about anything in your life? Can you even imagine?

If you’re going to win a national title, that’s how you should do it.

Of course, one does not happen into such an obsession by chance. Spelling and I have a long history: I am pretty sure I could count on one hand the number of spelling test words I missed in my elementary school career. In second grade I had to stay in from recess every week so my teacher could quiz me on words until we found one I didn’t know to add to my personalized list. Because my dad was an elementary school principal, I had known for years about the existence and prominence of not only the school spelling bee but the road victory puts you on, the road to the National Spelling Bee. And I wanted to win. I wanted to win it all. For literally YEARS before I was eligible, I studied the official booklet of Bee words (used in the preliminary rounds) awaiting my chance to shine. Though I tried very hard, I was never the best at sports or music. But with spelling I barely had to try. It came so easy to me, probably from all the reading I did, and I knew this was the best chance I would ever have to be the best at something.

Finally fifth grade came, and with it my first chance at Bee glory. I breezed through the classroom round, all the while studying my booklet in preparation for the school-wide event. I remember what I wore on the day of the bee: a paisley sweatshirt and purple jeans, both of which I thought were pretty cool. The reason I remember, though, is because of the one picture we have of that day: me, on the stage, accepting my certificate from my dad, who, as principal, had been presiding over the whole affair, my eyes puffy because I had been crying my eyes out after missing my word. I came in fifth.

Never in my wildest imaginations of the day had I envisioned coming in fifth. Maybe falling in a marathon spell-off between me and one other worthy opponent. But fifth? My word haunts me to this day: “indelible.”

I had never seen or heard that word before. My fellow spellers were getting words like “lettuce” and “pencil” and I got this? I was in shock. The winning word of that bee: “school.” I kid you not. After I got my word wrong, I had to return to my seat on the stage, and I sat there bawling my eyes out. I don’t remember how much longer it took to declare a winner; it felt like an eternity.

That was the end of my spelling bee career. The whole thing traumatized me so deeply that I refused to try again. Even after my dad came home that night and told me that he had looked into it and found that my word had accidentally been read from the “challenge” list, which was only supposed to be used in the case of a spell-off. Mine had been the only one from that list.

Quitting spelling is one of my biggest regrets, and on some level I’m sure my excitement for the Spelling Bee is an attempt to capture something that has always been just beyond my grasp. But really spelling is just some thing I’m weirdly good at, and it’s fun to have something you’re weirdly good at, and find other people who are weirdly good at it, too, and get that you enjoy this otherwise inconsequential thing.

Enjoy the Spelling Bee tonight; seriously, watch it if you can. Watch to see if 11-year-old Vanya Shivashankar can match her sister Kavya’s 2009 title, or if 13-year old Ashwin Veeramani can match his sister Anamika’s from 2010. Watch to root for Arvind Mahankali, who hopes to finally take home the trophy after two straight 3rd-place finishes. Watch for the dry humor of perennial announcer Jacques Bailly, who is a celebrity to these kids. And who knows…you might even learn a new word or two. And that’s why we’re all here, after all.

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