Spelling bee participants work to dispel the stereotypes

By correctly spelling "stromuhr," an instrument that measures the amount and speed of blood flow through an artery, 14-year-old Anamika Veeramani of North Royalton, Ohio, won the bee.
By Dan Steinberg
Friday, June 4, 2010

As with many stereotypes, the stereotype of the typical spelling bee champ has a certain element of truth. Many of the male competitors, it's true, wear khaki pants pulled up to armpit level. Many wear oversize spectacles. A great many appear slightly out of place on ESPN, where the 2010 Scripps National Spelling Bee will resume at 10 a.m. on Friday morning.

But you always run into pockets of teenagers in the downtown Grand Hyatt who seem to smash the stereotypes. As I was wandering through the hotel lobby on Thursday afternoon, I ran into one such group. When I saw them, they were posing for stylized photos that would have made the Cleveland Cavaliers proud.

Their members included Bianca James, who complained that the bee's dress code stifled individuality.

"No prints, no tiny stripes, no color, nothing awesome. Some people come with pants up to here," she said, motioning to her neck with a sigh.

James was palling around with Jared Urbina, who wore a hip striped hat on stage Thursday morning, when he approached the mic and said "Hi, mom."

"I had been promising her I'd give her a shout-out at least once," he later said. "She pulled out her camera phone, and I was like, 'Huh, that'd be really cool to have on a camera phone.' "

The group also included Julianna Canabal-Rodriguez, who explained how they tried to force the other spellers to be social.

"We just randomly snatched some kids from their parents," she told me. "We call it the Ambush Crew."

It included Zachary Ocab, a laid-back Californian sporting flashy red Nikes, a flat-brimmed baseball cap and sunglasses hanging around his neck. During the group karaoke outing earlier in the week, he and James took control of the stage, performing Vanilla Ice and Kanye West, which the DJ would only play if they promised to "self-edit" some of the questionable words.

"You have to have seen them at the picnic," said Newton Ocab, Zach's dad. "When they first walked in, nobody knew anybody. They were like magnets, surrounded by little particles."

Now, these kids didn't have a bad word to say about their more celebrated competitors who will earn headlines this weekend, but they sort of knew what I was getting at. Like, I asked if it was fair to say that some of the finalists weren't always concerned with the latest fashion trends.

"You can say that," James agreed.

Still, "We don't really care who they are and what they do, we're just trying to get to know them," Ocab said.

"And by the way, it'd be unfair for us to call them dorks or anything like that, because we're here also," said Urbina, who was selected by the ESPN crew to do a bit at the Jefferson Memorial. "That's why I'm like, 'I don't really care.' I'll talk to anyone."

Most members of this crew were eighth graders, making this their first (and last) appearance at nationals. Many of the favorites, on the other hand, have been here before. As it turned out, Ocab, Urbina and James would be eliminated by the end of Thursday's third round, but they all pledged to return for the semifinals. They figure they might as well make this a memorable time, which is why they led the dancing at the picnic.

"We were basically the only ones moving and making people move," James said. "Everyone else was just sitting there, looking at us like, 'Get them out of here. What are they doing at a spelling bee?' "

And what are they doing at a spelling bee?

"Having fun," she said. "And spelling."

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