At the National Spelling Bee, young spellers fall like f-l-i-e-s in competition’s third round

Kids competing in the 2014 Scripps National Spelling Bee tell The Washington Post why spelling is important to them. (Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)

Ding by ding, they fell. The stage at the Scripps National Spelling Bee steadily became less crowded Wednesday as students stumbled over Latin roots and German suffixes.

Most said a polite “thank you” after official pronouncer Jacques Bailly told them how they should have spelled the word that did them in. They walked off to applause and low-fives from their competitors in the front row, followed by an unblinking handheld camera as they were led to a not-very-private couch of consolation, the last stop on what had been a perfect run of spelling since their first classroom bee last fall.

By the end of the day, the original 281 spellers were down to 46. Those survivors will face their final confrontation with the English language Thursday. Sudden-death rounds in the morning will be followed, for the last dozen or so standing, by the championship round to be aired live in prime time on ESPN.

Alexander Hauer, the spelling pride of Glen Landing Middle School in Blackwood, N.J., said he was both peeved and relieved to be out, after getting past “panglossian” and “agoraphobia” in the two stage rounds Wednesday. He went down on points, barely missing the semifinals after officials figured in results from computerized spelling and vocabulary tests the kids took Tuesday. He’d rather go down that way than to flub a word onstage.

“Hearing that bell on national television is a lot worse,” said Hauer, 14.

The 87th National Spelling Bee, an event that has its origins in frontier schoolhouses, played out on a bright high-tech set flanked by billboard-size monitors under the lenses of 11 broadcast cameras and hundreds of smartphones.

With hundreds of family members and dozens of reporters watching, spellers walked to center stage, adjusted the microphone up and down the wide variance of adolescent heights and faced an imposing tribunal of judges and pronouncers. (The mike wouldn’t go any lower than Kasey Torres’s 9-year-old nose, so the third-grader from San Angelo, Tex., rose on his toes to spell, perfectly, the word “phaeton.”)

At the side of Judge Blake Giddens, a civil engineer from Fairfax, Va., and the 1983 national spelling champion, sat the small antique hotel desk bell that would eventually end the year- long flawless spelling run of all but one of them. Some of the students, as they asked for definitions, parts of speech and origins, spoke in breaking preteen tones. Others hissed slightly through braces and retainers.

An ESPN boom camera periodically swept over the audience as spellers clenched their hands, or sometimes spelled with them in the air: “Francophone.” “Citronella. Templar. Melismatic. Babelism” (not “babylism,” as 13-year-old Maia Dykstra of Clarkston, Wash., learned in front of a national TV audience. Well, the cable audience of ESPN3, which is where the network consigned the Wednesday rounds.)

Some spellers whispered “Hello” to the judges so softly that every parent in the auditorium may have felt an urge to rush the stage with an emergency hug. Others assumed the spotlight with a cool swagger.

“Howdy, Dr. Bailly,” said several to Bailly, the bee’s blandly precise emcee (and the 1980 champion). “What’s up?” said others.

“We meet again,” said Stephen Landry, a repeating national speller from Rhode Island.

In honor of this week's Scripps National Spelling Bee, the Reliable Source asked members of Congress try their hand at spelling some of the contest's winning words. (JulieAnn McKellogg/The Washington Post)

The spellers who made it to this year’s tournament range in age from 8 to 15; most are middle-schoolers between 12 and 14. Just over half are girls (50.53 percent). Two-thirds come from public schools, the rest from private, parochial and charter schools. Eleven spellers were home-schooled.

Forty-two of the contestants have been on the big stage in previous years, and one of them, Sriram Hathwar from Painted Post, N.Y., is here for his fifth national bee. He is a speller to watch, according to veteran bee watchers.

“This year, Sriram had to beat his own little brother to get here,” said Jacqueline Policastro, a reporter here chasing seven spellers for local stations in New York, Michigan and Ohio. “There are some great stories with these kids. I love coming here.”

Hathwar, 14, made the final cut and will be onstage Thursday. His vanquished 11-year-old brother Jairam, whom Sriram outspelled in a regional qualifying bee, said he was glad to see his sibling advance.

“He studied harder than I did,” Jairam said.

“We both know it’s a battle against the dictionary, not against each other,” said Sriram, as reporters crowded around.

Facing the news media is just one of the new experiences for these prodigies (203 of them are new to the national event, and 90 of them have never been to Washington). At stage-side and in crowded corridors, they found themselves facing the cameras like the members of Congress whom many of the reporters cover on other days.

“I interview some of the most high-profile power people in the world, and these kids typically have more poise than any of them,” Policastro said.

Hannah Jackson of Midland, Mich., said doing press was no big deal. In her third year at the bee, and her first time in the semifinals, she has no problem with the boilerplate questions: “What’s your favorite word?” “Spell that for me.” “Do you have any rituals you do before you spell?”

Several spellers carried the official autograph books that the bee provides. Gathering the signatures of fellow spellers and judges — Bailly is one of the most coveted gets — is a tradition dating back decades.

“I remember getting an autograph book and being told, ‘Get as many as you can because you don’t know who is going to be famous,’ ” said Paige Kimble, who was the champion in 1981 and is now the bee’s executive director. (In her book is found the youthful scrawl of future New York Times film critic A.O. Scott.)

At the end of the day, the auditorium drained. Those who will be back to spell again will dream of schwas and homonyms. The eliminated? They can dream of anything they want.

“I just want to get something to eat,” Alexander said.

Steve Hendrix came to The Post more than ten years ago from the world of magazine freelancing and has written for just about every page of the paper: Travel, Style, the Magazine, Book World, Foreign, National and, most recently, the Metro section’s Enterprise Team.
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