Spelling Bee contestant Vanya Shivashankar of Olathe, Kan., is comforted by father Mirle and sister Kavya after she was eliminated May 31 at round 6 of the 84th annual Scripps National Spelling Bee competition at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Md. (Alex Wong/GETTY IMAGES)

I missed my younger son’s musical performance Tuesday.

And I totally failed to provide the needed assistance on my older son’s class newspaper project.

Both of them gravely need their toenails trimmed. And haircuts.

So, what the heck. Why not Thelma-and-Louise myself further into the gaping canyon of parental inadequacy and head to the Scripps National Spelling Bee to watch 10-year-olds spell words like stenohaline and riant?

This contest has become a national obsession, aired on ESPN and orchestrated with as much precision as the Super Bowl and Miss America pageant. (And not “Amercia,” Romney campaign. I suggest y’all hire one of these kids.)

But it’s tough to say who’s more compelling for me to watch: the whip-smart savant kids or their high-octane uber-parents. At Thursday’s semifinals, the parents were easy to spot. When their kids got up to spell some absurdly difficult word, the camera panned their faces. They were holding their breaths, praying, burying their faces in their hands.

Because getting a kid to the National Spelling Bee takes work, work, work. When I covered the Bee for the first time in 2005, I was immediately struck by the fact that all three finalists were Indian Americans. (Are they the real Tiger Moms?)

I was a new mother then, in that sweet, syrupy window of time when you think that maybe, possibly, you gave birth to another Einstein. I began imagining my child up on that stage in 13 years.

What could I have been thinking? The parents of “spellebrities” are all-the-way in.

They paint their minivans with their kids’ numbers: “Go, #263!!!!” And make posters for the ballroom bulletin board: “Go, Vishnu!”

After an elimination, they rehash the spelling in the lobby. “That ‘schwa’ sound is horrible. It’s just one little letter he missed,” one mom said. “We’ll take a break. Then we’ll start practicing for next year.”

“I could tell he didn’t know that word, I could see it on his face, right away,” a dad said.

I asked them for advice.

“Practice, practice,” they told me. “For hours. And hours.”

The other dominant group at the bee is the home-schoolers.

“Practice, practice. For days,” they told me.

Nope. No way was I up to that. So I gave up on having spelling prodigies. And my boys grew a little older, and I left that pink bubble of Einstein optimism shifted to the phase where you just hope you haven’t given birth to another Jeffrey Dahmer.

This year, the bee introduced the world to the youngest competitor ever, Lori Anne C. Madison, a 6-year-old from Woodbridge who immediately became America’s super-smart sweetheart. She was knocked out in the third round, fouled by the word “ingluvies.” No biggie. The precocious home-schooler has eight more years to try for that $30,000 award.

Wow. $30,000 is some serious cash. Who says I can’t create spellers?

Hangman!! That’s a spelling game, right?

“We’re playing hangman, boys!” I tell my kids, 5 and 7.

The 7-year-old starts. His word stumps me. I can’t beat him. I feel that old, familiar buzz of maniacal parental optimism.

Once I’m hung, he triumphantly writes it out:


“What’s that word?” I ask, still kinda hoping it’s one of those obscure Webster’s words he found on his own.

“Mom. Duh. Monkey?” he snarks.


Maybe we can enter the science fair.

Follow me on Twitter at @petulad or e-mail me at dvorakp@washpost.com. To read my previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.