Eric Rauchway, 13, turns from the microphone to glance at spelling bee pronouncer Dr. Alex Cameron.
"Ratatouille," Cameron pronounces again. "This is a French word."
"Ratatouille," repeats Rauchway carefully. One hundred and thirty-five spelling casualties since Wednesday morning have left Rauchway and 14-year-old Blake Giddens the lone survivors on the stage of the Capitol Hilton Presidential Ballroom in the 56th Annual Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee finals yesterday.
Repeating the word is everything. The judges insist that you repeat the word to verify you heard it correctly. Not that the spellers have to be reminded. They repeat words like tigers pouncing on restless prey. When they're stumped, you can hear it in their voices. You can almost hear the sweat, the grinding of brain cells. They repeat the word as if it were so foreign they couldn't connect it to any Indo-European language. They ask for the definition, ask for it used in a sentence, ask for the origin, ask if it has another pronunciation, ask everything except, "How do you spell it?"
"May I have a definition, please?" asks Rauchway.
"A stew made of eggplant, tomatoes . . ." comes the response.
Rauchway takes the plunge, bathed in camera light, before several hundred people watching in silence. Photographers' cameras are trained on him.
The judge summarily taps the desk bell, an inappropriately pleasant chime that sounds a death knell for the speller. But Eric Rauchway, an 8th grader at Shorecrest Preparatory School in St. Petersburg, Fla., is not out yet.
Blake Giddens, an 8th grader from Chaparral Junior High in Alamogordo, N.M., must spell the word that Rauchway missed.
"Ratu, ratee--say that word again?" Giddens says with a grin as laughter breaks in the audience. He is a slight presence in corduroy jacket with shiny, perfectly combed brown hair. Cameron pronounces it again.
"R-a-ta-t-o-u-i-l-l-e," Giddens spells. The judge nods.
But he must spell one more to win.
"Purim. A Jewish festival . . ."
Giddens thinks. "P-u-r-i-m?"
The judge nods, the audience squeals, the cameras click. James H. Wagner, director of the National Spelling Bee, takes center stage, and puts one arm around Giddens and another arm around Rauchway. Giddens, the winner of a gold cup trophy and $1,000, beams politely. Rauchway, number two, stands stoically, looking slightly ill.
Outside the ballroom, 11-year-old Tanya Solomon of Kansas City, Mo., who came in third, stands with her parents, Rochelle and Benjamin Solomon. Her father is a cantor. Tanya was downed on Vichyite. Someone tells them that the winning word was Purim.
"Purim!" cries Rochelle Solomon, her exasperation turning to a wry smile at the irony. "That kills me. She could have spelled 'Purim.' "
But it was the luck of the turn. There were tricky words and there were difficult words that made the audience groan and the spellers blanch. There were amazing feats as contestants spelled words they clearly had never seen or heard before.
"Can I have a definition, please?" asks 11-year-old Bindhu Gopalan in a breathy voice.
"A turnsole is one of several plants whose leaves are supposed to follow the sun."
She bows her head. "Turnsole?"
"May I have a sentence?" she asks. She gets a sentence. She looks down at her hands, clasped tightly in front of her. For the last few months, she has gotten up, sometimes at five in the morning, to study vocabulary with her mother.
"Turnsole," she breathes. "T-u-r-n-" she pauses, still looking down, "s-o-l-e."
She looks up tentatively to see the judge nod. She gasps, hand to her chest, and returns to her seat and to vigorous applause. Back in the audience, her father has tears in his eyes. "She's gutsy, no?" he says.
"There was one particularly poignant moment on Wednesday when 13-year-old Andrew Flosdorf of Fonda, N.Y., confessed to the judges that a word, echolalia, that they thought he had spelled correctly he had actually misspelled. "I didn't want to feel like slime," Flosdorf explained to reporters. He received a standing ovation from the spellers and the audience when his deed was announced Wednesday afternoon.
Some of the finalists had studied for hours each day. They had gone through dictionaries or tried to absorb the 2,400-word booklet, "Words of the Champions," published by the National Spelling Bee. It is the source of words for the first three rounds of the bee. Blake Giddens studied eight hours a day the last couple of weeks, reviewing words, prefixes and suffixes, with his mother, Nanette Giddens, 36, a former spelling bee contestant who had compiled two notebooks of words for training.
The 574 words crossed a variety of origins and categories. Menu items seemed to be formidable for this group of 10- to 14-year-olds. Missed were moussaka, Chardonnay, minestrone--and of course, ratatouille. "I think it's important as kids grow up that they know how to read menus," says Wagner. "I'm perfectly serious."
"Anor-what?" asks Alisa Mayor, 14, intently eyeing the pronouncer. She wears a black suit. In her clenched right fist, held at her side, dangle blue satin ribbons attached to hair barrettes, her good luck charms.
"Anorthopia," she says, her brow creased in serious thought. "Can I have a definition, please?"
"Anorthopia is distorted vision in which straight lines appear bent."
As she leans into the microphone to spell it, the ribbons sway back and forth. "A-n-o-r-t-h-o-p-i-a."
After the nod of approval from the judge, she walks back to her seat, smiles, and glances skyward as if in prayer.
There were heartbreakers too--a final 'e' left off trochee; an 'a' where an 'i' should have been in Visigothic; an initial 'e' forgotten in eutaxy. When the desk bell chimed, spellers turned, heads down, and walked slowly toward bee staffers, who offered an arm of comfort and a protective escort off stage.
"I'll never forget 'stichometry,' " says 13-year-old Alan Goldman, from Brooklyn, who misspelled it. He had already successfully tackled pagination and strudel. "I'm just glad I eat strudel all the time," he says. "I read the package."
Goldman finished 78th and took his long walk off stage. "One of the official consolers comes up to you and escorts you to the Continental Room where it's made better with Coke and potato chips," he says. "If you feel like it, you can look up the word in the dictionary and see if Webster has it the way you spelled it. Generally it doesn't. And the whole thing wears off in about a week."