Spelling in the spotlight: Life at the 88th Scripps National Spelling Bee
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.—The academic counterpart to the Little League World Series is going on now at the Gaylord Convention Center in this suburb of Washington, D.C. It’s the 88th annual Scripps National Spelling Bee, an ESPN-televised tournament of pubescent (and in some cases prepubescent) sweat and tears, a series of epic small-scale passion plays, a reality show of soul-crushing drama that’s been around much longer than “The Bachelorette,” “Top Chef,” or, for that matter, anything else. It started in 1925 when one Frank Neuhauser of Louisville, Ky., nailed “gladiolus.” Which, to be honest, I thought ended in “as.”
A “crying couch”—the official designation, by the way—sits stage right, two boxes of tissues resting, obtrusively, in the center. It is to that piece of sad furniture that participants retire after missing a word, their parents rushing to their side like visitors to a hospital bed after an emergency. You and I would be at that couch much sooner than most of the 283 competitors, who were culled from a field of 11 million, the approximate number of spellers who months ago began to qualify in regional bees. In Round Two on Wednesday morning, only four of the 283 missed words, a much higher percentage than, say, the number of barstoolers who could tell you that Joe DiMaggio hit safely in 56 straight games. Or even correctly spell “DiMaggio.”
If you want to flagellate yourself for sitting around and not getting much done, the Scripps Bee is a good place for you. Among the spellers, who come from every state and eight foreign countries, is one Ayush Noori, a 12-year-old seventh grader from Seattle who is in the process of starting his own 501 (c) (3) charity to support underprivileged children. Lela Festa (13-year-old seventh grader from Fitchburg, Mass.) started her own Etsy shop as a way to sell her crocheting creations. Junah Jang (12-year-old seventh grader from Columbia, Mo.) was in the original revival cast of “Annie” on Broadway. Neha Middela (13-year-old eighth grader from Pontiac, Mich.) wrote 50,000 words as part of the National Novel Writing Month Challenge. Daniel Taylor (14-year-old eighth grader from Las Vegas) competes in national snowboarding competitions.
Bro, what did you get done today?
The Bee’s gentle rock star is a man named Jacques Bailly, a classics Ph.D who teaches at the University of Vermont and has been the Bee’s official pronouncer since 2003. Which means that he gets a lot of airtime on ESPN for one day every May. He was the 1980 Bee champion, winning that competition by spelling “elucubrate.” The Bee cultivates an extended family feeling. Two of this year’s judges, Blake Giddens (1983) and George Thampy (2000), are former champions, having spelled “Purim” and “demarche,” respectively. And the Bee’s executive director, Paige Kimble (née Pipkin) finished second to Bailly in ’80, then won the following year by spelling “sarcophagus.”
It was at that first bee that their mothers, Jeannie Pipkin and Florence Bailly, met and became “telephone buddies,” in Kimble’s words. “In fact, we visited the Baillys in Denver that summer,” Kimble said during a noon break in the competition on Wednesday, “and lo and behold, the 1982 champion, Molly Dieveney, was a neighbor of theirs.” (Dieveney’s final word was “psoriasis,” tied for the least appetizing championship word in Bee history with 1965’s “eczema.”)
You and the young Bailee weren’t boyfriend and girlfriend by any chance? she was asked.
“Oh, no, nothing like that,” Kimble said. “We lost touch and reconnected when we got back involved with the Bee.”
Many of the spellers come to the microphone and address Bailly personally, perhaps with a hearty “Good morning, Dr. Bailly” or even a casual “It’s a nice day, isn’t it, Mr. Bailly?’’ which came from the dulcet voice of nine-year-old Naysa Modi in Round Three on Wednesday. Sometimes the shoutouts to Dr. B. are uttered out of nervousness but more because the spellers feel a personal connection to the man, whose tone, while soothing, is also didactic, as befitting a Plato specialist. It is Bailly the spellers hear on the prep materials they receive from Scripps, so in a sense he’s with them all year, an avuncular voice in their ear.
One senses Bailly’s pain when a word is missed—wisely, it is signaled by the light tingle of a bell rather than the pronouncer screaming “WRONG!” which is how a Trump-sponsored contest would unfold. “I want them all to do well,” Bailly says. Among the words missed in the much tougher afternoon round were “geelhout” (incorrectly spelled as “gheelhaut,” which sounds more correct to me), “scagliola” (incorrectly spelled as “scaliola,” but in either case sounds like something you wouldn't want to suffer from) and “Zamzummim” (incorrectly spelled “Zamzumim”). Even if I had a maxzummim amount of time, I wouldn’t have gotten that last one.
The tension is excruciating. The sight of a diminutive kid—the oldest spellers are 15 (eighth grade or below is the cutoff) but there were three nine-year-old qualifiers this year—standing at a microphone, facing an audience of grownups, peers behind him … it’s sometimes hard to take. And that is without factoring in the ESPN cameras aimed at him like he’s a bug under a microscope.
“I understand that,” says Bailly. “But, really, I think being on television energizes these kids more than anything.”
He’s probably right. The TV component has been a major part of the Bee for the last 22 years, and, obviously, it’s a ratings winner; ESPN isn’t here live just to advance literacy in America. Every August we watch 12-year-olds shed tears when they screw up a groundball, so here they are making an error on “fanfaronade,” which was incorrectly offered as “fanfarronade.” At that age, most of us wouldn’t have had a shot on either the groundball or the word.