Spelling bee: Angst and cool

The Scripps National Spelling Bee is a study in contrasts.

There are adolescents consumed by angst – nervous breathing, eyes darting, minds that appear to teeter on breakdown as a monotone expert enunciates the challenge. And then there are the cool customers, offering easy laughter, a flip joke and even a smile as they await the judgment of the all-important bell. If it rings, their day is over.

Jack Nolan, 13, fell somewhere in between. On Thursday, in the semifinal rounds at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in Prince George’s County, his younger rivals had straight backs and an anxious look. Jack, from Elkridge in Howard County, had mastered the look of 13 going on 20 – slouching in his chair, knuckles stroking a mostly nonexistent beard.

He had the added pressure of knowing that, as an eighth grader, it was the last time he could participate in the event. He has competed in bees for several years. In the last year, he spent about an hour a day on multiple word lists, making flash cards for the ones he missed.

But the aspiring computer programmer, who excels at math and considers spelling an intense hobby, said he isn’t too worried about finding new pursuits.

“I plan on going to high school,” he said in an interview, “and seeing what they have there.”

Jack, cheered on by his parents, Valerie and Ted Nolan, was among the top 50 in a competition of 278. He competed at the national bee in 2009, then topped out in the county bees the next two years. This was his last chance.

On Wednesday in rounds two and three, he spelled dichotomy, which means a division into two parts or groups, and kalema, a term for a violent ocean surf. On Thursday in round four, he spelled ergastulum.

On that word and others, Jack’s skill with etymology and roots were crucial. He knew from the definition – a Roman dungeon – that the word likely ended in “–um” and he knew the “ergo” root.

Jack plans to use such word skills to tackle Chinese in language camp this summer.

The words that fly at the spellers get harder every year, Jack said. His downfall was atopen, which means an agent inducing atopic allergy. He spelled it “attapan.”

“I was already pretty sure I would not be getting that word,” Jack said. “It’s a weird word. I don’t think I’m going to use it again.”

Reston’s Jae Canetti, 10, the only other semifinalist from the Washington region, said he expects to be back at the bee. The precocious youngster will be remembered for his terse politeness. “Sentence, please,” he asked the judges. “Etymology, please.”

And then, all business, Jae would draw large, pretend letters on his arm with his finger. After he spelled habendum correctly in the fourth round, Jae pumped his fists.

“Yeah!” he said, greeting high-fives from fellow spellers. But “Grundriss,” meaning a comprehensive and systematic outline, had his number. He spelled it “gruntris.”

There were nine finalists in the championship round, which began at 8 p.m. Thursday. The youngest was Arvind Mahankali, 12, of Bayside Hills, N.Y.

The rest were 14: Snigdha Nandipati of San Diego; Frank Cahill of Parker, Colo.; Stuti Mishra of West Melbourne, Fla.; Gifton Wright of Spanish Town, Jamaica; Jordan Hoffman of Lee’s Summit, Mo.; Emma Ciereszynski of Dover, N.H.; Nicholas Rushlow of Pickerington, Ohio; and Lena Greenberg of Philadelphia.

Finally, it was down to two: Snigdha Nandipati and Stuti Mishra. Stuti misspelled “schwarmerei,” setting up Snigdha for the win. She confidently spelled “guetapens,” which means to ambush. She smiled but didn’t react when she won — she seemed not to know it. Then the confetti went off and the ballroom stood, cheering.

“I knew it; I’d seen it before,” she said of the winning word in a television interview.

Snigdha said she had practiced six hours during the week and 12 hours on weekends before the contest. What does it take to be the best speller in the country?

“A lot,” she said.

Jeremy Borden covers Prince William County, Va., for The Washington Post.
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