I drove two hours to Dubuque to see the 25th Annual Telegraph-Herald Regional Spelling Bee because I won the... eleventh, I think. Couldn't tell you what the word was*, but I turned and said, "I won?" with incredulity and then jumped off the stage. This was not wholly inappropriate, but it also wasn't quite the thing. Then we had a luncheon.
*Two years earlier, I came in second. Dropped on 'vehemence', the winner then spelled 'thespian' and 'ballerina'. Who remembers winning words?
I was counting on the luncheon, as I don't usually eat breakfast and was missing my knitting time with coffee cake. There was no luncheon, which was sad. In fact, of the twenty-four champions (give or take) asked to return, I was one of six, and two of them were in the bee itself. The others were a high school sophomore, a priest, and one who came in a bit later and was closer to my age. We were announced, we stood, we waved, and I smiled with teeth.
One thing about spelling bees: they are boring. Unless you're in them. I thought I'd sit in the back and quietly embroider while the kids did their thing, but it was stadium seating. Instead, I took out my battered notebook, guessed which kids were on the spectrum, and wrote down all the words.
One other thing about spelling bees: they are all about failure. No one remembers the words they spell right. It's the ones you get wrong that stick with you. Second grade, street-- steet, because I was nervous*. Just before that, in class, I'd spelled every word on the list but 'treacherous', and I redeemed myself in fourth grade when that one went around the entire class and stopped at me. Sixth grade, see above. Seventh grade, I think, strenuous. Eighth grade, billowy or billowing (I spelled whichever was wrong), triskaidekaphobia. I must have gotten something wrong in fifth grade, but whatever. Point stands: you remember your failures.
Which is why I wasn't thrilled to wake up early on a Saturday and drive to Dubuque without any company. I wanted to see other champions and compare notes. I wanted to talk to Rosemary, who runs the bee for the newspaper. I wanted to be made much of, or at least something of, and instead I stood and smiled and sat down to watch twenty-six kids fight the dictionary.
Another thing about spelling bees: they are not about your opponents. Oh, people talk about the competition, but I have been in a lot of spelling bees and I will tell you, I did not beat my classmates. I beat the dictionary. It's every one of you against every one of the words, and yeah, some people fall, but it's about the words and the dictionary.
This does not mean I am not a bit puzzled at the people who have been to the TH spelling bee every year because they like the words. At this level, the word list starts out fairly tame.
I suppose one does learn from the constant questions-- language of origin, definition, use it in a sentence. Those, and repeating the word, are legal. This is how I know 'apricot' is, to quote the pronouncer, 'a well-traveled word' with origins in Greek, Latin, Arabic, and other languages. But mostly, the words are known not only to the audience, but to many of the spellers. You ask questions for a lot of reasons beyond, "I have no idea what this word is and I need to figure it out." There's uncertainty-- what if it's a homophone? There's self-doubt-- what if you think you know it but you don't? There's saving face-- what if you get it wrong and everyone thinks you're overproud for barging in when you could have asked a question and looked a little unsure? There's simply stalling for time because you're nervous. I saw more than one student write the word on her hand and then go on to ask all three questions. Annoying, but then, I'm a visual speller. I hear the word, I know the word, unless I don't, in which case life gets interesting. Those are the words I'm proud of, the ones I had to figure out-- catalysis and triskaidekaphobia come to mind, the latter because I was told it was Greek, which meant no hard C.
But oh, what about this spelling bee? What happened to make it blogworthy beyond my own introspection?
It started out with twenty-six kids, a practice round to test the mikes and their diction. Fickle, cameo, spectrum, iguana. I wrote the words down and left spaces as the spellers left. In round 6, I got a word wrong: homburg, a type of hat, not the only word I'd miss even in the early rounds. By round 9, we were down to six spellers. Rhetoric, bowery, amicable.
This is typical. You lose the nervous ones, the unlucky ones, the ones who are going to go. Then you get the ones who know more words and it's a lot more up to chance.
Round 12, five. 14, four. 18, three. Mikado. Inselberg. Backstein.
And I realized we were not getting questions. The pronouncer said the word, the kid repeated it to be sure, the pronouncer confirmed, and the word was spelled.
"Lederhosen. LEDERHOSEN. Lederhosen."
"That is correct."
Before round 33, the officials met and agreed that, in accordance with the rules, they'd move forward in the word list.
The mathematically inclined may have noticed that fourteen rounds passed in the interim. No questions, just words. The words don't necessarily get harder, just less familiar. Satori in round 5, koan in round 23. Tachometer isn't harder than thermometer, but not everyone knows about it. Minaret, segue, corpuscle.
The words got harder. Cynosure, serdab, raconteur, roodebok, nenuphar. I knew about two words in every three, but they still weren't asking questions, just confirming they heard the words right.
These three kids, two of them sisters, one of whom had gone to the big Bee in Washington DC, just knew the words, the way I know 'necessary' and 'phenylalanine' and 'cat'. I stopped writing my own guesses because it took too long for me to think and I needed definitions to help me along. Gnathonic, muishond, hoomalimali, jnana.
Weissnichtwo, voortrekker, schottische.
After round 44, the officials met again and asked the audience, half joking, if we had ideas to make it harder.
In round 45, each sister dropped. Kibitzer, turricular. Both got huge applause-- the applause didn't end with the first one, then one by one and in droves the audience stood because holy shit, that's a lot of words, and in any other bee she'd have won thirty rounds ago and so would her sister. The remaining kid had run into 'eutaxy', which he didn't know either, but he puzzled it out accurately, and he won with 'auteur'.
Forty-six rounds. Two hundred sixty-four words total. Three hours.
Joshua Kalyanapu is my favorite for the National Spelling Bee. All he has to do is walk into the room and say, "Forty-six rounds," and everyone will wet their pants.
It was amazing. Twenty-seven rounds with only two questions, each word tossed out and fired back.
I am not a great consumer of spelling bee stories; like I said, they're about failure, and I have a lot of that. If I'd guessed that syllable of triskaidekaphobia, if I'd won. But this was as good as anything in fiction. It was three kids against the dictionary, and every one of them won.