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Posted at 11:39 PM ET, 05/31/2012

The Scripps National Spelling Bee is decadent, depraved and as American as apple pie


Guetapens the dance floor! (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) (Jacquelyn Martin - AP)
Oxon Hill, MD — The Scripps National Spelling Bee combines all the fun of a crossword puzzle with all the fun of the Hunger Games.

The National Spelling Bee takes place in a hotel that looks like it swallowed a village. Inside the building are smaller buildings. There are indoor trees, some of them real. There are indoor birds. In the clapboard building that stands inside the lobby, you can buy paisley purses and wallets that say “Fabulous!” on them. There is a river downstairs with a bridge over it.

All in all, the Gaylord National Convention Center and Resort is a swanky place.

And it is a bacchanal.

You can tell the spellers by their distinctive orange t-shirts. The shirts proclaim each one of them a “spell-e-bri-ty: noun: a person renowned for the ability to spell difficult words under pressure, bright lights, and the adoring gaze of millions: me.” They have bought into their own mystique. Each carries a spiral-bound BeeKeeper with pictures and facts about all 278 of the contestants. Lena Greenberg is a published author, with works in “Cricket” and “Stone Soup.” Visha Parmar likes to watch NBA basketball. Did you know? Emma Ciereszynski “rides horses competitively in the discipline of ____.” There were dictionaries casually splayed on every surface looking happy but tired.

In the hall as we wait for the final night of competition to begin, there is a frantic orgy of BeeKeeper signing. Nervously, then with increasing boldness, girls and boys from various states fill in the missing bit of information about themselves and sign their names. They are eighth graders in high-waisted khakis. They have commemorative tote bags. And they are rock stars. They wave. Everyone applauds. Smashmouth plays in the background, for possibly the seventeenth time since the beginning of competition. It is a party the likes of which I have not witnessed since eighth grade. But I was never this cool.

This is their dream. This is Hollywood.

One of the cardinal rules of life is that anyone who actively enjoyed middle school is not a good person. And from the looks of them, these are not kids for whom middle school is a picnic. If you know how to spell “scuppernong,” generally people do not pick you first for softball. This is as it should be. In middle school, everything is the wrong size.

What is so captivating about this? It’s spelling. It ought to be about as interesting as conjugation. And yet it’s on ESPN, in Primetime. And we’re all watching.

The kids have senses of humor. They ask the pronouncer, Jacques Bailly, to spell the words for them. “Could I have an easier word please?” they ask. They respond, “Gesundheit” to real doozies.

No matter who wins, we win. It combines everything in the world that we like. Kids. Competition. Countdowns. Throw in cats wearing whimsical attire and we’d never need any other form of entertainment.

All in all, I would say that the bee was harengiform, but that is because I do not have a good grasp on what harengiform means.

It’s as American as apple pie, and then some.

The final nine came from all over. Gifton Wright, from Jamaica, who insisted on saying, “Thank you sir” after each of the words, even when a normal person might have replied, “Are you kidding? Take that phthisiology and shove it.” And that creates a strange irony, if irony is the word I want, of the National Spelling bee that one of the hardest things to spell are the names of the contestants. Stuti Mishra. Emma Ciereszynski. Snigdha Nandipati.

And they came with a kaleidoscope of personalities. Lena Greenberg, with her brown curly braid and glasses and tendency to flail endearingly when alarmed. Nicholas Rushlow, five-time veteran, by turns cocky and bluffing. Snigdha, the eventual winner, in her white polo, diligently demanding every possible morsel of information about each word that came down the pike. Once we’d whittled the contestants down to those three, my money was on Snigdha, because her name was the most difficult to spell.

The words came from all over as well. Admittatur. Schwarmerei. Schwannoma. Chionablepsia. Arrondissement. It’s like gargling with vowels. My computer doesn’t even recognize them.

Luteovirescent. Chatoyant. Rouille. Someone said a word that I was pretty sure was “whorewiggle,” but turned out not to be.

There is no more patriotic pastime than spelling. “Latin by way of French. Gaelic. Russian. From Tamil. From Greek.” Words for Yoga poses. Words for fish we will never see and foods we will never taste. And together, they form the English language and make it a more exciting place.

The words come from all nations, in huddled masses yearning for free E’s. Sometimes we force them to drop an H on the way in, take up a W where no W was intended. Some of them snuck silent consonants across the border when we were not looking. But then they belong to us. Baseball can stick it. This is the American pastime. This is the melting pot.

Whenever you worry that things are going badly for us as a nation, just remember that somewhere someone is dedicating 6 hours a day (10 on weekends) to memorizing unpronounceable words. The kids are all right. This, for them, is the light in the dark tunnel of middle school. They high-fived each other when they got things right. They doled out standing ovations when their comrades fell.

As a point of fact it was neither decadent nor depraved. It was so wholesome I think I ruptured something.

True, there was an old man with hairy ears reading 50 Shades of Grey under a tree in the lobby, but he was unaffiliated with the Bee as far as I could tell.

By  |  11:39 PM ET, 05/31/2012

 
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