BERRYVILLE, Va. — The Estep kids all remember the words they spelled correctly to land a coveted spot in the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
Marissa, 22, who went to the national bee twice, made it in 2004 with manicotti. Sam, 17, a three-time contestant, advanced in 2010 with dromomania (an exaggerated desire to wander). Last year, George, 15, got through with aggregation. And Edwin, 13, who has spent up to six hours a day preparing for his first appearance in the bee this week, advanced with helmsmanship.
The Virginia family’s spelling fixation is intense — they have a computer with 40,000 practice words programmed into it — but not unique. Dynasties are part of the bee’s lore, with streams of siblings — three, four, five, even six — competing for etymologic glory on ESPN.
In this year’s bee, which begins Tuesday at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in Maryland, three of the 285 contestants have older siblings who won the whole thing: Vanya Shivashankar, a 13-year-old from Kansas, and Jairam Hathwar, 12, and Srinath Mahankali, 11, both from New York. A total of 36 competitors have parents, grandparents or siblings who participated in the national bee, now in its 88th year. ESPN’s commentators like to burnish play-by-play drama with the back stories of these celebrity spelling broods.
Being a competitive speller in a family of champion spellers can inspire rivalries like no other. In a “Hunger Games”-like twist, Edwin Estep punched his ticket to the national bee by knocking out his twin, Laura, also a formidable speller, and his brother Nathan, 10, along the way. Laura and Nathan will try again next year, and no one would be surprised if either wins the regional bee, sponsored by the Boys & Girls Club of Northern Shenandoah Valley, to advance to the national competition.
For the Esteps and other families like them, success in spelling is not mere wordplay. Competing is fun, even eudaemonic (pertaining to or conducive to happiness), but there is pressure, too. After all, sibling bragging rights are at stake, and so is the family name.
“People stop us at the grocery store,” Laura Estep says. “They’re like, ‘Hey, there’s the spelling bee family!’ ”
In the same way that the Manning brothers are high achievers in football and the Kennedy children excelled in politics, spelling clans likely form because parents are delivering a message “that this is what’s valued in this family,” says Jeffrey Kluger, a senior writer at Time magazine and the author of “The Sibling Effect: What the Bonds Among Brothers and Sisters Reveal About Us.” “You gain recognition in this family by becoming conversant and successful with this material.”
Kids, Kluger says, learn to compete ferociously for their parents’ attention, and that often means trying to excel in areas where their parents have shown a deep interest. And for younger siblings pursuing the same discipline — whether its science, sports or spelling — there can be pressure to match or surpass the accomplishments of their older brothers or sisters.
“People at the regional bees knew my sisters made it to the national bee, so they were expecting me to do it,” says Eliza Willett, 13, a Virginia Beach homeschooler whose older sisters, Rebecca, 20, and Caroline, 17, are bee veterans. “There are some days where I really don’t want to study at all and I’m sort of grumpy, but they drill the words with me and tell me what to expect.”
Eliza, whose favorite word is Xiphias (the genus for swordfish) because she “likes how the ‘z’ sound is actually an ‘x,’ ” is thrilled that her hard work has landed her a spot in the bee. Getting to the semifinals, she says, “would be a really crazy dream.”
Although her older sisters paved the way for her to go to the national bee, Eliza needed additional enticement to devote hundreds of hours to studying.
“I told her if she won the regional, she could get a pot-bellied pig,” says Kim Willett, the girls’ mother and spelling coach. After her daughter took the regional title, the family went pig shopping and brought home Ruthie. They considered naming their porcine pet after Eliza’s winning word, but perestroika is a peculiar name for a pig.
For the Chen family of Amarillo, Tex., the path to the national spelling bee has been swift and unexpected. Xiong Chen and his wife, Jie Kuai, moved to the United States from China in 2002. Their English was limited, but less than a decade after they arrived in America, their eldest daughter, Ariel, made it to the national bee. Two years later, in 2013, their second daughter, Sonia, got there. And now, Olivia, their youngest child, will take part. At 10 years old, she is one of the youngest participants in this year’s contest.
Chen says that once you get one child in the national bee, “the others pick it up, and it becomes a family thing.”
Kids who have watched their siblings compete arrive at the bee with a higher degree of comfort and a deeper understanding of what it takes to perform well.
“It’s kind of scary being in front of all those people,” Olivia says, “but my sister told me to pretend the people aren’t there.”
At their rural home on 22 acres near Winchester, the Esteps have worked spelling into their homeschooling routine. It is as much a part of the day as sitting down together for meals and prayer.
“Webster’s Third is second only to the Bible in our house,” says the children’s mother, Kim, laughing.
But Kim and George Estep, who met at Virginia Tech as electrical engineering majors, didn’t set out to create a powerhouse spelling family. As a kid, Kim wasn’t a particularly good speller. During her fifth-grade spelling bee, she went out on the word “bicycle,” incorrectly spelling it “bycicle.” It irks her to this day. George is succinct about his own spelling ability: “I kind of stink at it.”
The family’s foray into spelling wasn’t fueled by dreams of having their children one day stand on stage and correctly spell such words as elucubrate (derived from a Latin word meaning to compose by lamplight) or cymotrichous (having wavy hair). It was fueled by panic. When the couple’s eldest child, Craig, was in the third grade, he didn’t fare well on a standardized spelling test. That set off alarms. Spelling practice with a program called “Spelling Power” soon followed.
“We really had no idea about spelling bees back then,” Kim says. “We kind of just fell into it.”
Working individually with all seven of their children on spelling wasn’t feasible. So the family used a computer program that allows Kim to record words. That list of words is now 40,000 long (or about 30 times as long as this article). The kids then listen to the words on their computers and type in the spelling.
In their home’s finished basement, which doubles as a classroom, walls of bookshelves are filled with Thomas Paine’s “Rights of Man,” Dante’s “Inferno,” “Herodotus for Boys and Girls” and Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged.” This is where Edwin spends a good chunk of his waking hours, studying for the bee on his iPad. As the big day approaches, he’s starting to feel the pressure.
“Once you make it once, everyone expects you to do it again,” he says.
The rest of the family knows the stakes, especially his twin sister.
“When we see him just walking around, we’re like, ‘Go do your spelling!’ ” Laura says.
But even as Edwin prepares for his turn in the spotlight, the family is looking down the line to extend its reign. All the siblings agree that Nathan may be the best speller of the bunch, including Sam, who claims the family’s best performance in the bee. In 2011, he finished 13th after being felled by the word bondieuserie (banal and often shoddy religious art). Nathan, Sam declares, could go even further:
“Using the wealth of all of our knowledge, he’ll be able to become the ultimate speller.”