Oxon Hill, Md. – The Spelling Bee is simultaneously the closest and the farthest thing we have from the Hunger Games.
The 87th Bee, broadcast on ESPN on Thursday night, showed a number of similarities: All the participants are young. They have honed a particular set of skills very carefully in training. If you prevail, you get fame and fortune and your face on a large banner. If you lose, the bell
cannon sounds.There is a lot of baffling lighting, sponsors and district pride. Viewers at home depend on video segments to learn which contestants to vote for. We are mere years away from the introduction of wardrobe consultants and special glass tubes through which competitors are shot out into the arena. Already, it takes place in the Gaylord National Harbor, an artificial environment if ever there was one — a fake town square and indoor trees, all under a protective dome. Maybe soon we’ll be able to send rogue silent K’s to contestants who need them.
And the sponsors! Microsoft was there with “B is for Bing” signs strategically placed. One of the videos of the tributes — er, spellers — included the information that his hero was Bill Gates, which was, I’m sure, completely true, but can’t have hurt the sponsor’s feelings any.
21 minutes in we had broken for commercial twice. There had been one “sideline interview” and one canned segment about how a speller was inspired by Lebron James. We returned from from commercial for another video segment about the Rules of the Spelling Bee and a goofy video, while signs told us to applaud.
“Isn’t that the truth, Chris! There are strict rules at the bee,” the sidelines reporter intoned, introducing yet another video segment, this time of people misspelling things on the Mall. Two words. Another canned video segment – an intro to one of the spellers. Another word or two. And some video of people spelling things correctly earlier. Guillemet. Collyrium. AND TOMORROW NIGHT THE NBA is back on ESPN! Commercial break!
The sheer number of commercials and edited segments was mind-boggling. Especially during the first hour, brief spells of spelling were interrupted by a video segment about the art of spelling, followed by a video montage of the spellers dancing to a song about spelling, followed by a commercial break. It’s spelling as reality TV. This is clearly on ESPN. The spellers march in, accompanied by a flurry of sportscasterly attention, the spelling equivalent of, “Is your defense ready? Feeling limber?” It’s proof that almost anything can be turned into a major, TV-ready evening of blood sport, if you just place the cameras at the correct angle. This guy’s the funny guy! This one’s the dark horse! The only people who weren’t playing ball were the spellers.
The spelling bee is a strange hybrid of staged and real. The room itself shows the divide — there’s the large, color-fluctuating set with its honeycomb hexagons and the Bee logo, turning a jaundiced yellow one moment and a sunset peach the next, an ominous red if anyone nears the time limit. On either side of the set, bracketing the spellers, looms a large screen, where you can see what the camera is pointing at — a set of nervous parents, a speller’s worried shoe, the face of pronouncer Dr. Bailly.
But the rest of the room is full of the most enthusiastic parents and fellow spellers you could imagine.
It was one of those characteristics of competitions that are also communities. Once a year, you meet the others of your kind, the other kids who have been spending quality time in the proximity of “guillemet” and then EPSN urges you to fight to the death. Fight the Capitol! One eliminated contestant said he’d focus on more “esoteric words” next time, and while the sidelines reporter returned the word with some dubious quotation marks attached, the room completely understood. Time to band together and destroy the arena!
And that was what happened. The meat of the story emerged in the second hour.
The audience fell in love with Ansun, one of the final three standing, when he got handed the word AUGENPHILOLOGIE, which means “linguistics that misrepresents the realities of speech because of overemphasis on writing.” Your eyes liked the words; your mouth is still making up its mind.
After all, misrepresenting the realities of speech was a theme of the evening.
“How do you pronounce the word?” the spellers asked, over and over again.
“Am I pronouncing this right?”
Good luck with that. Good luck with that in life.
“No guarantees,” Dr. Bailly, the spell-MC, kept repeating. No guarantees. That is the trouble with a vocabulary. You finally, after years of flailing through desert sands where none of the words are applicable, think you are in a context where “feuilleton” might actually be an appropriate thing to say, you instead produce a sound that sounds like “feweeeton,” and then you sound like an ignoramus instead of an erudite person (two more words you have serious doubt about pronouncing.) Half the point of getting into the spelling bee in the first place is that you finally have a captive pronunciation expert who can steer you in the right direction, in case by some freak accident you get to use these words later in life.
Ansun emitted exactly the correct response that you would make after being handed a word like AUGENPHILOLOGIE. . Then, diving in, then halting over the last G-I-E, he spelled it. And it was correct.
And the crowd went wild.
The actual room is seldom visible from the other side of the TV. The people in it respond gamely enough to the large “Applause!” signs waved after every commercial break. But they clapped plenty on their own.
Whenever the spellers took the dictionary down a peg, the room went wild. Any time someone spelled a word right, they clapped. Any time someone lost – they rose to their feet and emitted long, loud, apologetic applause. They genuinely wanted everyone to do well.
When Ansun and Sriram Hathwar became the last two standing, both of them missed a word, and the duel continued, it became clear where the real battle lay. Their spelling was a thing of beauty. As we ticked down the words to the end of the second hour, it was no longer a duel. It was a duet. Stichomythia. Feuilleton.
The words were the enemy. When Dr. Bailly announced that if Ansun Sujoe spelled the last word correctly, they would be co-champs, the excitement was palpable. Two victors? Could this be? You kept waiting for an ominous sky-voice to announce, “There’s been a rule change.”
The camera always wants a hunger games. But they weren’t there to destroy each other. They were there to spell. And spell they did.
Sriram Hathwar, one of the winners, said it best – “The competition was us against the dictionary, not us against each other.”
When the Bee announced its first co-champs in 52 years, it felt like a victory for community over competition. So much for editing. So much for blood sport. The dictionary lost. So did the Capitol, in a way.