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June 5, 2006

Great Moments in Spelling (Part III)

Yahoo! It’s go-time at the National Spelling Bee! Sure, I couldn’t watch the preliminary rounds on live TV, but when I got home, I had an appropriate gift awaiting me; my pre-ordered copy of American Bee: The National Spelling Bee and the Culture of Word Nerds, the new book by James Maguire, arrived at my house just in time for this year’s contest. Now in addition to six televised hours of the competition, I've got another 10 hours or more of reading all about the Bee. Sometimes circumstances fall into place just perfectly.

So here’s my running diary of the 2006 NSB. ESPN picks up the action in Round 4, where 86 spellers remain. To keep everyone from getting confused, all times listed are from the West Coast broadcast, instead of when I actually watched them.

9:01 AM: From the Grand Hyatt Ballroom in Washington DC, it’s the 79th Annual Scripps National Spelling Bee! Our hosts for this morning are Chris McKendry and Paul Loeffler, 13th place finalist in the 1990 Bee. What – former champion Katie McCrimmon wasn’t available this year? And the best substitute we could find was a 13th place finisher? If we can’t have a past champion, at least give us Paula Abdul to tell the contestants how beautiful and adorable they are. One minute into the broadcast, and I’m already a little disappointed. (Um...not that I’m picky.)

9:20: 13-year old Marissa Lyn Estep and head pronouncer Dr Jacques Bailly take multiple turns clearing their throats and bringing up phlegm attempting a proper pronunciation of the word echt (genuine). It’s the Bee equivalent of watching marathon runners pee on the side of the road – a behavior which under normal circumstances is considered revolting and rude, but within the context of the event nobody is offended. Finally, after pronouncing the word properly, Marissa asks the most obvious question of the day: “Is this word German?”, giving everyone a nice laugh. It’s high comedy at the Scripps Bee, and we’re just getting started.

9:38: There are 14 Canadian spellers in this year’s Bee. This whole Canadian invasion took me by surprise. Apparently we allow any English-speaking kids into our national bee. Do other countries extend this same courtesy to us? How many kids out there have dual spelling bee citizenships? And how come almost all of the foreigners are Canadian – there really weren’t any British kids out there who could make the cut? The Brits are complete language snobs; I’m sure if Eton or Andover knew about this contest, they’d send a whole squad of ringers across the pond.

9:40: 14-year-old Finola Hackett from Tofield, Ontario is the two-time Canadian champ, which brings up an intriguing idea: How about rounding up the best spellers from all the English-speaking countries, and having them face off in a World Series of Spelling? These kids are the same age as the gymnasts at the Olympics. I just don’t understand why spelling hasn’t been awarded Olympic status yet.

9:42: 12-year-old Leslie Alix Newcombe from Don Mills, Ontario is the second Canadian speller in Round 5. As she says “zed” at the end of her correct spelling of ersatz (substitute, synthetic), there’s a long pause as the judges glance back and forth at each other. A few seconds later they remember: “zed” is how Canucks say “z”. See, this multinational thing has everybody else screwed up, too.

9:46: Hey – a Big Sur Marathon reference! 11-year-old Anqi Dong of Saskatoon draws the word nepenthe (something capable of relieving grief or suffering). There’s a day spa named Nepenthe in Big Sur, near the point where the buses turn around before dropping runners off. Take that, Boston – I’ll bet the word “Hopkinton” never makes the Bee.

10:20: The bell they use to signal missed words seems a little antiquated. Remember the spelling bee in the old Charlie Brown special called Snoopy Come Home? Whenever a kid missed a word, he or she immediately disappeared off the screen with the sound of a bubble popping. We have the technology to do this for real, don’t we? Imagine how cool it would be if, instead of the bell that signals a misspelling, the kid just vanished from the TV screen. I’m thinking of this as Chris Buchanan misses torrone (a candy made of honey and almonds).

10:34: Nidharsham Anandasivam requests one minute of “bonus time” pondering the word physis (the source of growth or change inherent in nature). Every contestant is entitled to one additional minute if they can’t spell their word in the allotted time – basically, they get one minute for free. You know, if I had one minute of bonus time at this year’s Big Sur Marathon, I would have broken three hours. Not that I’m still thinking about that.

Sometime after 12:00 PM: What? The biggest moment of this year’s Bee is completely missed by ESPN: after they cut away to SportsCenter at the top of the hour, 12-year-old Samir Patel is eliminated from the contest. A 4-time Bee finalist and last year’s runner-up, Samir was the odds-on favorite to win this year. Unfortunately, he couldn’t make it through Round 7, and won’t even appear in the prime time broadcast. (At home that night, I feel the same way I felt watching the Athens Olympics, waiting to see Alan Webb in prime time coverage of the 1500m, only to find out he didn’t even make it out of the qualifying heats. I'm not kidding - missing Samir is just as disappointing.)

Anyway, it’s been a busy morning after 7 rounds, and 13 spellers remain. It’s time for a break. See you in prime-time.

8:00 PM: The moment has finally arrived: Welcome to the first-ever prime time coverage of the National Spelling Bee!

8:01: After an opening montage, the first image from the Ballroom is the 13 remaining spellers huddling in a circle, holding their hands in the middle, then cheering “1-2-3-spell!” Let me put it this way...what if all the competitors in the Olympic 5K final stood at the side of the track, held hands, and cheered “1-2-3-run!” How corny would that look? That’s exactly how this photo-op cheer comes across. Remember what I said about ABC making unnecessary changes? 1 minute into the broadcast, here is Exhibit A.

8:05: Now it’s definitely a big-time event: For its prime time coverage, ABC has replaced Chris McKendry with Robin Roberts. Remember when Robin was a SportsCenter anchor on ESPN? One of her catch phrases was “Go on with your bad self!” Maybe if some kid does the fist-pump-to-chest or does a jersey pull after spelling a word correctly, she’ll use the phrase tonight. Unfortunately, these kids are either too classy or too oblivious to even know what a jersey pull is, let alone to do one at the prime time Bee. What a missed opportunity.

8:07: As the camera pans across the faces of each seated competitor, most of them give a little wave or nervous smile. Not Rajiv Tarigopula. The 13-year-old from St Louis stares down the camera with his best sneer. He’s like Ivan Drago staring down Rocky Balboa and saying, “I must break you.” The broadcasters mention that with the elimination of Samir Patel, Rajiv is now the favorite to win this year’s Bee.

8:45: After Finola correctly spells formenkreis (a species with many subdivisions), Paul Loeffler tells us, “She has the weight of a country riding on her shoulders,” and later in the competition says she “has the attention of her whole nation.” Um, really? Aren’t the Edmonton Oilers in the NHL Finals right now? Are more Canadians concerned with the bee than winning the Stanley Cup? Is Finola more popular than the hockey team in her hometown, which is a suburb of Edmonton? If she wins, will they engrave her name on the championship cup like the Oilers will on Lord Stanley’s? Actually, the trophies look remarkably similar. This is making me nervous. I think I’m pulling for the American kids now.

9:01: The kids seem to be getting an awful lot of French and German words thrown at them in this year’s Bee. Which leads me to wonder: do bees in other countries borrow Americanized words to puzzle their finalists? Are there kids in France or Germany who are memorizing lists with words like crunk, hollaback, and bootylicious? For some reason, that would make me happy if they were – especially after Nidharshan is eliminated by paillon (a thin sheet of metallic foil).

9:24: It’s cool that Finola is doing so well, but here’s the thing: She’s had a remarkable number of French-origin words (guilloche, douane, machicotage, esquisse) in succession to get her through the later rounds. Isn’t French like a second language in Canada? I mean, if I entered a Bee and drew a list of words like anaerobic, fartlek, aquaphor, and Gallowalk, wouldn’t I have pretty good shot at advancing? Although all of these kids are enormously well-prepared, there’s certainly a “luck of the draw” element to this event.

(And I’m not one to suggest a conspiracy at play here, but head pronouncer Jacques Bailly also happens to be of French descent. To recap, that’s a French judge giving French words to a French-speaking contestant. Just thought it merited mentioning.)

9:36: Everyone in the Grand Hyatt Ballroom is stunned. Rajiv can’t nail the correct spelling of heiligenschein (a light around someone’s head caused by diffraction of light), and is out of the competition. Rajiv clearly thought he would win. The broadcasters thought Rajiv would win. Millions of television viewers thought Rajiv would win. Heck, even the other spellers thought he would win. He gets a standing ovation before leaving the stage. But now the most talented competitor who was the clear favorite has been eliminated in the final four…and all of a sudden I’m having these crazy Chris Daughtry flashbacks. You know, it's possible that I've been watching too much TV lately.

9:46: Saryn Hooks misspells icteritious (of a jaundiced color), and we’re down to the final two: Kerry Close and Finola Hackett. USA vs. Canada. This is the matchup everybody wanted in the Olympic hockey tournament four months ago, but never got to see. Now two eighth-graders are left to duke it out for national bragging rights. Hey, kids, no pressure here or anything – it’s just a letdown to your entire country if you lose. Have fun in Round 15.

9:58: During these final rounds, Finola has slowly won over a large percentage of the crowd. Maybe the audience is hoping she’ll be another Tanith Belbin: she’s very pretty, she’s incredibly talented, and if we cheer for her loud enough, maybe she’ll defect to the United States a couple of months before next year’s Bee.

10:04: After sailing through round after round of French words, Finola meets her match in the German weltschmerz (a type of emotional depression). She heads back to her seat with a dejection and dismay. She couldn’t spell the word, but now she’s actively demonstrating it. Unfortunately, the national Charades championship isn’t for another few weeks. On the bright side, I’m positive that the Oilers will honor her between periods at a hockey game this week.

10:08: The audience lets out a collective gasp when Dr Bailly announces the final word ursprache (a parent language). Will German words knock out both of the top spellers? Considering the moment, Kerry Close appears relatively unruffled, and after a few deep breaths, spells the word correctly to claim the championship.


She immediately backs away from the microphone, hands clasped over her mouth in astonishment, and runs off stage to hug her parents. No chest pounding, no jersey pull – just a classy reaction from a gifted girl. She’s a picture of joy as the MC comes over and helps her raise the champion’s cup – the cup that’s staying in America for at least another year.

So tell me: where else but the Bee would international intrigue and nail-biting competition go hand in hand with pre-teen awkwardness and obscure academia? Year after year, the NSB consistently delivers the goods. That's why I'll be watching again next year.

And it's crazy, but usually I get the same kind of weltschmerz after the National Bee that I do after my favorite races, in that I know I have to wait another full year to experience it once again. This time though, I don't feel quite as depressed, because I have my own personal nepenthe: a great new book to help soften the blow.

So now if you'll excuse me, I have some reading I'd like to do.


See other installments of this series on sidebar at right.

9 comments:

Anonymous,  6/5/06, 9:31 AM  

Donald,
Here's what I'd like to know - did you have to go back to the dictionary to spell and define all those words for us? Or, did you take notes during the broadcast? Or, are you a potential spelling bee champ yourself?

backofpack 6/5/06, 9:32 AM  

Donald,
Here is what I really want to know: Did you have to go to the dictionary to spell and define all those words for us? Or did you take notes during the broadcast? Or are you a future bee champ yourself?

jeff 6/5/06, 9:52 AM  

great recap, donald!

my version of it to aa during the marathon this weekend included more hip-checks and body slams, but all in all, the same report.

Mike 6/6/06, 12:55 AM  

Donald,
Hilarious post...you'd be a great commentator at the bee! Haven't caught the bee on tv but did catch the movie "spellbound"...I'm sure you've seen it...that was great.

Robb 6/6/06, 12:30 PM  

Canadians are great eh?

Darrell 6/9/06, 9:02 AM  

Kevin and Bean spent at least 10 minutes talking about the Bee the following morning complete with audio clips and highlights. You would have been proud. I still think you have some secret control at KROQ! Glad you loved it all and thanks for sharing. It was fun to read.

Downhillnut 6/11/06, 9:49 AM  

So much to say, such a little comment box...

Canadians are CONSTANTLY coming in second to Americans in global sporting events. Please do not begrudge us something so quiet and politely-managed as a spelling bee. We hear the American anthem PLENTY up here (twice on Friday at Spruce Meadows when I was there). If Americans came to our spelling bee they'd probably win there, too. And we'd probably politely let them :P

Finola probably doesn't speak any more french than most Californian kids speak spanish. Kids have only been required to take a second language class for a couple of years in her small town. Tofield is NOT a bilingual place (right-wing grain and meat farmers), it's got more Ukrainian, German and Scandanavian descendants than French.

LOVE the idea of a global spelling bee! I was an annoying language geek before I became a runner. Still am, I guess.

Rather enjoyed your references to Big Sur and Peanuts cartoons.

I rather doubt the "weight of a country" was on Finola's shoulders. Though she was in the news last year for her participation, and there was some media coverage here before her event. Plenty afterwards, especially since she and Jaclyn did so well. Ummmm, I don't recall any reference to her in regards to the Oilers except something like "hope we don't come second to the Americans like Finola did..."

Kerry did beautifully well, and I really admired the class and composure of all the competitors. MUCH classier than many foul-mouthed AI contestants who can't take criticism.

I must say, this comment box is pleasantly stretchy :)

Eliza,  6/13/06, 6:41 AM  

Donald,
I thought Loeffler was charming, personally. He may not have won, but saying that would have qualified him more to be there is equal to nullifying the experiences of the 274 competitors who didn't win this year. He had more of a right than McKendry or Roberts, at least. Glad you enjoyed the bee though.

mohd 6/14/07, 6:01 AM  

samir patel is great!!!!

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