Bright Lights, Big Dictionaries: What It Was Like to Compete in Scripps


When I tell people I was in the National Spelling Bee, it’s always with a weird self-deprecating “I’m such a nerd” kind of tone, but the truth is—it was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.

I grew up in Bluefield, West Virginia, which is a very small, very beautiful town that I miss a lot. I was a super nerdy kid who loved to read, which is how I got good at spelling. It’s not a marketable skill as an adult, really, but when I was young it was my little superpower. My mom tells this story about me at about age two, toddling up to her and announcing that “ingredients” is spelled “I-N-G-R-E-D-I-E-N-T-S.” So she, at least, wasn’t surprised when I started winning bees.

Spelling bees are strict by nature, and they’ve gathered a vague pop-culture aura of stress around them. I think a lot of people see them as the pressure-packed domain of homeschooled headcases trying to please their stern, fundamentalist parents. There’s even an episode of Frasier where Frasier’s son is in the national bee and Thatcher Grey and his son spend the whole time trash-talking and cheating their way to victory. But it was never like that for me.

You can start qualifying for the national bee in fourth grade (or the age of eight, whichever comes first, I think). So I was still in elementary school the first time I made it to the county bee, which I liked because my friend Paul’s mom was the pronouncer (Paul went to the national bee the year before I did and he was always my Mercer County spelling buddy. Hi, Paul!).

Everything changed for me after my sixth-grade school bee, which I remember very clearly: the French teacher who was acting as pronouncer for some reason repeated the word “ultramarine” without the first “r” in it about a hundred times, and so the boy whose word it was got it wrong. I always felt a little bad about that. After that year, my school just kind of started letting me skip the class and school levels and sending me straight on to county.

Regionals were next up (although some smaller states send county winners straight to the statewide bee). I always enjoyed Regionals; it was a day off from school and a chance to hang out in the comparatively big city of Charleston, where there was an Olive Garden. It was also the only one where I ever really got nervous. The school and county levels never really felt like much of a challenge, and once you’re at Nationals you’re mostly just happy to be there. But Regionals was make-or-break time if you wanted to go to Washington. I remember the car ride to Charleston as the most nerve-wracking two hours of bee season, every time.

But, leading up to the competitions, I just had fun—even when it was time to study. I’d usually work on 3-D jigsaw puzzles while my mom quizzed me from the official practice book of the national bee, the Paideia. The practice book was broken up into categories: Medical Terms (otorhinolaryngologist, rheum), Food Words (streuselkuchen, lagniappe, postprandial), words from books like Emma and Watership Down. (From what I can tell, the Paideia doesn’t exist anymore, and they just have the list on a website, organized by language of origin. This bums me out on a pretty significant level.)

I’ve never been able to watch the Bee since I competed, because of feelings, so I don’t know what else has changed. I’ve heard that in recent years they’ve screwed around with the format, instituted a written round (BLASPHEMY, in my personal opinion), even switched locations from D.C. to Baltimore. But in 2000, the first year I competed (I went twice), the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee was held at the Grand Hyatt in D.C., which is laid out around a big atrium so everyone can see your window. They gave all the contestants big inflatable anthropomorphized dictionaries, with faces and arms and cowboy hats, and everybody put theirs in the windows so you could look around and see who was there for the Bee.

And that was the cool part, of course—seeing who else was there. Technically, the other kids were the competition, but for someone like me, from a tiny town, getting to hang out with 250 other nerd kids for a week was unbelievably meaningful. You could look at everyone in the Bee Week Guide, which they gave you when you registered on the first day: it had schedules and events and stuff, but also a section like a yearbook, with everyone’s picture and a little bio.

(I definitely remember at least one kid’s bio mentioned that he had built his own computer. I feel like mine probably talked about my dreams of becoming a writer and how I was super into playing the flute, but you’d have to check with my mom to be sure. She still has my Guides, tucked away in a scrapbook, because in case you couldn’t already tell, I am an only child.)

The actual competition took place on Wednesday (prelims) and Thursday (the rounds you see on TV), but they put you up at the Hyatt for the whole week, and there were parties and tours and ice cream socials and all kinds of other fun stuff. Unless you were super intense about the competition (or your parents were), it was pretty much just an awesome vacation. We met our Senator and toured the White House and Mount Vernon and a million museums.

At the end of the week, there was a big gala dinner with a dance after, and people went around signing each other’s Bee Week Guides like it was the last day of camp. I guess now they probably just add each other on Facebook. In general, there was never really much wariness or hostility going around, because you can’t tell who your strongest competition is; you end up just making normal connections and not talking too much about spelling, because of course, the most notable thing about you is also the most notable thing about everyone else.

The most lasting relationships I formed were with people I sat next to during the competition; it’s a relief onstage to have a connection with someone. One year, I developed a brief but intense crush on a boy from Florida. We kissed during one of the post-competition parties in the little room where the pay phones were and then never saw each other again. And I’m still friends with a few of the other people I met there—all incredible, gifted people. One graduated from Harvard. One worked for Tumblr. One is now a Wisconsin state representative.

But of course, the competition itself started to loom over all the touristy stuff and the new friends you were making about halfway through the week. Kids would study on the bus on the way to the National Gallery or the FDR Memorial, or skip those activities entirely to stay in their rooms with lists of words.

On the first morning of competition, my parents and I would have breakfast in the hotel coffee shop. I remember huge cheese danishes and superstitiously drinking a SoBe “Smart” drink even though I didn’t really like the taste. My dad was in the middle of quitting smoking that first year so he wandered around restlessly, and my mom worked out her nerves by ironing everything in our suitcases.

And then came all the waiting. There are at least 250 spellers every year (this year there are 285), competing in alphabetical state order, so if you’re from West Virginia there’s a lot of sitting there anxiously onstage waiting for people to get weeded out. The first few rounds were composed solely of words from the Paideia. I was extremely concerned with not getting out in those first couple of rounds, because that would mean I hadn’t studied enough. As long as I lasted past the Paideia words, I figured, it counted as a win. Also, I wanted to be on television.

I got lucky both times, advancing to Thursday’s finals. Once you make it past the prelims, everything gets a little bit more intense because you’re going to be on TV. They give everyone the same ugly white polo shirt to wear, with the Bee logo on it (my mom was so happy to have something new to iron), and the cameras and the lights are incredibly hot and bright and disorienting. You can’t see your parents in the audience anymore, because of the glare, and the words get harder—unless you go through the entire dictionary, there’s no way to really prep for those. You have to rely on skills beyond rote memorization: root words, that kind of thing. You’re allowed to ask three questions: language of origin, part of speech, and for an example of the word being used in a sentence. Sometimes that helps.

When you miss a word there’s a soft bell, which I guess is supposed to be less traumatic than a buzzer or something, but it’s still the worst sound. The pronouncer and the judges all look at you so kindly, but the feeling you get when the bell rings, the vertiginous sensation of everything you’ve been focusing on for the last six months coming to an abrupt halt, isn’t really one that can be ameliorated with a look. I said before that I never really felt much pressure (my parents are amazing and wonderful, is what that’s about), but being up on that stage and in front of those lights isn’t exactly easy, either. I never made it past the first TV round. The first year, “epenthesis” got me; the next year, it was “ranine.”

After the bell rings, you exit stage right and the staff escorts you to a little room backstage, where there are cookies (not great ones, in my memory) and Kleenex and some space to breathe or cry or whatever you need to do with your feelings before you go deal with your family and the press. Some kids would get really upset, and a staff member would go out into the audience and bring a parent back for them. Some just needed a minute before they went to face the world; some breezed right on through. Because all the regional bees are sponsored by local newspapers, most kids had their own reporter there, writing about their performance for the people back home. I can’t imagine that’s how it works anymore, but 15 years ago it was a whole press bullpen, with people filing stories over a bank of pay phones, and it was an overwhelming crowd to face when you’d just lost.

When you’re ready, after you’ve hugged your parents, you go back into the ballroom and watch somebody else win. Then you just want to get back to your room and change out of the polo shirt. After that, you want to nap forever; then you want to eat the biggest dinner. It’s a pretty draining day.

It’s hard not to feel like I peaked back then, in a lot of ways. I’ll never be nationally ranked at anything else. There’s a lot less positive reinforcement in life once you age out of formal competitions like spelling bees (though I did win an adult spelling bee in a Mexican restaurant a couple of years ago). It becomes harder to know what’s expected of you. The 285 kids competing in this year’s Scripps National Spelling Bee know what’s expected of them, and all of them have already excelled at it just to get to this point. No matter who wins on Thursday, all of them should and will spend the week celebrating what they have already achieved, and carry around with them forever, like I do, the way it feels to be the best at something.

Molly Fromkin lives in Memphis, Tennessee, with two perfect cats and one nearly perfect dude. Her interests include podcasts about television, lime cucumber Gatorade, and dyeing her hair funky colors. Sometimes she tries to be funny on Twitter @mfromkin.

Image via Molly

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