Pa. teen beats out 275 kids in increasingly popular national spelling bee

The fate of speller Surjo Bandyopadhyay rested on Jacques Bailly’s lips.

“May I please have all the information on this word that you can give me?” asked 14-year-old Surjo, of Lusby, the last student from Maryland standing in the semifinal round at the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

Bailly told him that the word is German, meaning a type of musical instrument. When Surjo, an eighth-grader at Southern Middle School, asked whether it is derived from “nacht” — meaning “night” — Bailly said no. And back and forth they went on the pronunciation until Maryland’s last candidate said it correctly. But the spelling was off.

“N-A-C-H-S-C-H-L-A-G,” Bailly pronounced. Surjo was out, but he laughed it off while muttering “fail.”

In the early stages of the competition, Surjo became a crowd favorite. People laughed as he twisted his face, scratched his chin and pumped his fists when he spelled words correctly. For the past year, he’d been furiously memorizing words in the dictionary — from 4:30 to 6:30 a.m., and then for five hours after school.

“I don’t feel like I lost,” he said. “I did really well. It’s been a great learning tool, and I’ve gained so much knowledge.”

Late Thursday, Sukanya Roy, 14, of Abington Heights Middle School in Pennsylvania, won the contest by spelling cymotrichous, which means “having wavy hair.”

“It’s amazing,’’ she said. “It’s beyond words.”

The Scripps spelling bee is said to be the nation’s oldest academic competition. But with 275 kids in the contest this year, it’s still growing. The bee moved this year from the District to the Gaylord National Resort Hotel and Convention Center in Prince George’s County to accommodate 2,000 spectators, an 80 percent increase from last year. An event that used to cater only to families is now selling $40 tickets for logophiles so they can see kids recite some of the most esoteric words in the English language.

Shortly before 10 p.m., only 10 spellers remained. Their ranks did not include Samuel Estep, a 13-year-old home-schooler from Berryville who was the final bee survivor from Virginia, a feeling he could only describe as “amazing.”

Estep lasted one round in the finals, misspelling “bondieuserie,” a shoddy piece of religious art. After his elimination, Estep was flanked by his parents, George and Kimberly. They provided a comfort they’d given before — his 18-year-old sister, Marissa, got to the national championship in 2004 and 2006.

His elimination continued the drought for winners from the Washington area. In the 85 spelling bees since 1925 (a break was taken during World War II), there has never been a winner from Maryland or the District. Two, Amanda Goad from Richmond in 1992 and Daniel Greenblatt from Leesburg in 1984, have come from Virginia.

Despite the glitz of the bee nowadays, the core values that draw millions to watch the event on ESPN are the same. The cute nervousness that a kid shows as he approaches the microphone. The anticipation of hearing a word. The interaction with the omniscient pronouncer, whose words are like a balm.

“He’s great at his job,” Surjo said after his elimination. “When he speaks, he helps calm people down because he’s calm. He gives you the outlook that there’s nothing to lose.”

Bailly knows that this competition should be fun, that the key is lots of studying and lots of steadiness. After all, he was a competitor himself.

It was 1980 when Bailly, an eighth-grader from Denver, got his first trip to Washington for a spelling bee. He won.

His winning word: elucubrate. Which he said means, essentially, “burning the midnight oil.”

The bee was a defining moment in his enduring love for words. He went on to learn Latin, Greek and German, and he teaches etymology at the University of Vermont.

When Bailly walks out of the convention hall, he is stopped for autographs. But, he insists, “I’m not a personality.”

“Aside from this week, I have no recognition value,” he said. “It’s a little embarrassing, actually. I feel like my job is to not be conspicuous, but to give words as kindly and as effectively as possible.”

The stakes for Bailly are high. The accuracy of his sentence, the elocution of an “ah” instead of an “eh” could be the subtle distinction needed for a speller’s success.

But he rarely flubs. And truth is, word teams have been working on this year’s competition since the day last year’s concluded.

Organizers create word lists by first rolling over the leftovers of the previous year’s 1,200 or so choices. A team scours Merriam-Webster’s Third Unabridged Dictionary and places its best finds in a database, which is then further scrutinized.

A team of a dozen then creates digestible sentences for confusing words. The team consults medical doctors and other experts in fields to make sure its sentences are accurate for a competition that this year started with 11 million kids.

So the script was written when Lily Jordan of Portland, Maine, got up and asked for a sentence to explain a word that means very large snakes.

“I have had it with these most forsaken thanatophidia on this most forsaken plane,” Bailly deadpanned. Even Jordan laughed. She also got that word right.

If not for the competition, Bailly admits he would be lost in some of the meanings. Still, he said those words are necessary — because the kids, well, elucubrate for a moment to win $30,000, a dictionary and other prizes.

“We couldn’t possibly get a winner if we did not have these impossible words,” Bailly said. “They are that good. We try to give as much help as we possibly can, but we need all these words to take them down.”

Robert Samuels writes for the Post’s social issues team. In Maryland, he focuses on issues affecting low-income children and families. He also covers life in the District.
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