'Spellbound' Star Struggles for Happier Ending
'99 D.C. Bee Champ Works to Win Again
By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 4, 2004; Page A01
In the ballroom of Washington's Grand Hyatt Hotel, hundreds of children sat uneasily Wednesday afternoon with huge numbered signs hanging around their necks. One by one, under the glare of television lights and the gaze of tense parents, they approached the microphone and began to spell, letters spilling from their lips and arranging themselves into the words they have spent countless hours memorizing: lenitive, equipollent, polemoscope, verbigeration.
Across the Anacostia River, in her sparsely furnished apartment, a contestant from a previous Scripps National Spelling Bee -- 18-year-old Ashley White -- arrived home from her job as a salesclerk, having just picked up her 10-month-old daughter from day care. White was tired, the baby fussy. Out their window, buses growled by on Minnesota Avenue SE.
Five years after winning the D.C. bee and surviving several rounds of the national finals, White was warming pureed peas and remembering the achievement that won her a featured spot in the Oscar-nominated documentary "Spellbound."
"I would not have imagined that my life would be like this," she said softly.
But in part because of the bee, "like this" is a lot better than it used to be.
Last year, Pam Jones, a nonprofit marketing consultant who saw the movie and wanted to do something for this bright, ambitious girl from a poor family, found White staying with a series of relatives and friends shortly after the baby's birth and rallied other viewers to her cause. While they contributed money for diapers and food, Jones coached her through an application to Howard University.
With that boost, White again marshaled the skills that got her to the bee -- "I was always a go-getter," she said. She found subsidized day care for her daughter, started classes at Howard in January, moved to a shelter for homeless teenagers and then rented an apartment in a two-year transitional program for single mothers. Between semesters, she is working full time in a clothing store.
Though it isn't what she imagined when she was a 13-year-old Hine Middle School speller with a photographic memory and dreams of being an obstetrician, she is less a stranger to herself and the girl she was. "I'll have a job that pays well and I will love my profession and I'll have a house, and whenever my mother or family member needs me, I'll be there for them," she tells an interviewer in the movie, before the finals.
Ten million children competed in spelling competitions across the country this year. This week, a record 265 finalists and their families descended on the Hyatt for the three-day Scripps National Spelling Bee, which ended yesterday with the crowning of the national champion. David Tidmarsh, 14, an eighth-grader from South Bend, Ind., won when he spelled "autochthonous," an adjective used to describe aboriginal flora or fauna.
Organizers attribute the bee's soaring popularity in part to "Spellbound," which was released last year. The documentary followed eight young contestants as they made their way to the 1999 finals -- among them Ashley White, who won the citywide competition that year by spelling "plaque." The Inquirer, a weekly newspaper that sponsors the D.C. bee, recommended her to the moviemakers, and producer Sean Welch said she impressed his crew immediately.
"She was a girl who did not have the same opportunities or same resources as some of the other kids who compete," he said. "Yet it was undaunting to her. She continued undeterred. She realized that by applying herself to the monumental task of spelling, it would not only help her in the immediate competition but . . . throughout her life."
Ashley, whose intellectual hunger caught her teachers' eyes early, spent four years aiming at the city title, studying weekends and after school and carrying the 4,000-word official bee spelling booklet wherever she went. The movie follows her to the third round of the national finals, where she was knocked out by "ecclesiastical," competing against some kids whose parents could afford to hire them spelling coaches and language tutors.
Jones, 54, saw "Spellbound" at a Dupont Circle theater and was taken with her. "There was something about her that said, 'I've got a lot of odds against me, but I'm going to overcome them,' " Jones recalled. She said she got to wondering where Ashley was in her life and whether she had been able to move toward her goals.
"My original thought was that she at least needed mentors, women in D.C. who are doing things with their lives," Jones said. But when she finally met the girl she'd seen on the screen, the autumn after her graduation from the School Without Walls, much more than that was needed.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Reporters crowd around David Tidmarsh, 14, of South Bend, Ind., the winner of the 77th National Spelling Bee, who said he studied for it up to four hours a day on weekdays.
(Photos Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
A June 4 article on former National Spelling Bee contestant Ashley White misstated the name of the newspaper that sponsors the District's citywide spelling contest. It is the Informer, not the Inquirer.