NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.—That fucking bell. There's always a split-second between the moment a contestant at the Scripps National Spelling Bee finishes a word and the moment that bell rings out, and in that split-second you can see everything: panic, fear, terror, embarrassment, denial, anger ... all of it.
Most of the kids who took the stage at the Gaylord National Convention Center last night knew when they got a word wrong. And so the bell served as a confirmation of their worst fears. Or maybe they had a fleeting thought like, "Hey, maybe I stumbled my way into spelling it right!" only to have the bell dash those hopes in a hurry. A bell usually means: Dinner! Or: You can stop boxing for a few seconds now. Or: Ooooh, let's ring this 500 times to see if the hotel clerk gets pissed. Those are all good things. The bell at the spelling bee is the hangman's bell. It should ring out low and long, and Metallica should come roaring in as you're whisked off the stage.
If you believe the folks running the event (and they seem nice enough), there were 11 million kids who participated in the preliminary stages of this spelling bee. Of those 11 million, 281 came here to D.C., their trips sponsored by local newspapers, local businesses, or nearby universities. Those 281 were then pared down to 42 semifinalists, and then to 11 finalists. These few were SPECIAL. "You know they're going to go far in life," Paige Kimble, the executive director of the bee, told the crowd.
And that may be. But it's worth remembering, too, that all but one of these promising kids has to be escorted out by that fucking bell (or by other means, as you will soon learn). There are 10,999,999 losers in this event, and the kids who trudged all the way here to D.C. this week probably didn't spend eight hours a day poring over Greek roots just to come in 54th.
I went the bee last night to figure out if, in 2013, this bee does kids more good than harm. Is this event, which has grown exponentially over the years and has now been completely co-opted by television, actually beneficial for kids? Is it a good thing for kids to be subjected to failure at such a high and visible level, after sacrificing so many hours memorizing the dictionary at the expense of enjoying all the free time normally associated with being an ordinary kid? I think I found the answer, but let's get our bearings first.
• The Bee took place in the Maryland Ballroom of the Convention Center, which is large enough to fit a thousand people, maybe more. Outside the ballroom was a security checkpoint for parents and spellers and, I dunno, spelling fanboys. You had to go through a metal detector before getting into the ballroom, and I wondered if there had been an incident in the bee's past that made this a necessity. Had some deranged parent tried to bring in an AK to shoot down potential rivals? I'd like to think we live in a country where that sort of thing doesn't happen. But who am I kidding? THIS IS 'MERICA.
• Along a massive side hallway flanking the ballroom was the Hall of Champions. You could hang out in this hallway and stare at standing displays that took you through the history of the bee, from 1925 all the way up to the present. It was like a pop-up museum. There were even champion banners hanging from the ceiling, just like you'd see at the Staples Center. Each banner had the year's champion and the winning word. Here's a photo of Dr. Jacques Bailly's banner.
Bailly, who is the dude who presides over the bee and uses the words in all those HILARIOUS sentences, was the bee champ in 1980. Kimble, the executive director, is also a former champ. If you win a bee, you got a job FOR LIFE.
• There is also this display, featuring pictures of all 281 spellers participating this year.
If you made the semifinals or the finals, you got a little sticker on the display saying so. Subverting my expectations, kids who get knocked out didn't get red X's drawn through their eyes.
• Before entering the main hall, we were greeted with this notice from ESPN that basically said, "We OWN you."
I didn't sign anything, ESPN. You can't stop me from going into that room rocking a Guy Fawkes mask.
• There was also a paramedic's gurney off to the side of the ballroom. Again, I wondered if something had prompted that. I can only imagine the irregular heart rhythms experienced by parents during this thing. Their EKG probably ends up looking like the time signature to a Rush song.
• Here is what the Bee looked like from inside the Maryland Ballroom. It was a big ballroom.
To the left of the stage was a monitor that kept a running display of who was currently spelling, which words they'd gotten right in previous rounds, and which words had been spelled correctly during the present round. It was just like an NFL draft ticker. In fact, I would pay good money for Mel Kiper to be there in the ballroom, breaking down each child's intangibles. "Khaled Muhamed. Bit of a tweener at this point. You'd like to see him add some bulk and be stronger up top. Needs to work on his enunciation, Boom."
To the right of the stage was a giant monitor that displayed ESPN's live feed, minus the ads and the live commentary from Sage Steele and Paul Loeffler. Steele and Loeffler did their commentary from a raised platform at the back left of the ballroom, and you couldn't hear it. The crowd and the spellers had to sit there for minutes at a time in dead silence while Sage and Paul were yukking it up over in the corner. It was really weird.
• There was also an APPLAUSE sign to cue the audience that we were back from commercial break. "And that sign says ... APPLESAUCE."
• Because TV is TV, ESPN forced the bee to adopt a new format this year to adhere to time constraints. For the first time, kids could be eliminated without getting a single word wrong while on stage. They had to take a computer test at certain stages of the competition. The test asked them to spell 15 words, 12 of them common to the pool, three of them unique to each speller. An automated Dr. Bailly gave them the word through a set of headphones, and they could push buttons to ask Compu-Bailly all the shit they ask when they're on stage. After that, the test asked them for definitions as well. Stefan Fatsis has a good explanation of this new format and why it sucks, but the thing you need to know is that, at the end of certain rounds, the computer test results serve to winnow the field down further. At the end of the semifinal round, there were 18 kids left on stage. Only the top 11 advanced to the finals, with their computer test scores determining who got to move on and who didn't. Real BCS-type shit.
• I found this new format to be extremely unfair, but I was apparently in the minority. I asked a handful of kids who got the gate thanks to the CPU if they were annoyed about being escorted from the competition without getting a word wrong on stage. All of them said it was preferable to hearing the dreaded bell.
"This is the way to go out!" said Hannah Citsay's dad.
And Hannah, a semi-finalist, agreed. "Some kids don't do well in front of crowds," she said. "This way is more balanced."
To get knocked out without getting a word wrong on stage is kind of like winning a bowl game. You get to end the season on a high note, even though you aren't the ultimate champion. Hannah looked genuinely happy with her result. She didn't have to fail in front of everyone, and that made a big difference to her.
• This isn't to say that every kid was delighted to get knocked out. I saw one kid, Kuvam Nirad, sobbing in his father's arms after leaving the stage. I didn't want to Jim Gray him and bother him in the middle of one of the most painful moments of his existence, but suffice it to say he probably wasn't wild about going out like that.
• When kids got a word wrong on stage, they heard the dreaded bell, and then EVERYONE in the crowd winced. It was like a collective reflex. Every time the bell went off, you heard a giant OOOOH and then the poor kid was escorted to the kissing couch off to the side (there were cookies) by an attractive lady in a little black dress. Then the parents would come up to hug the kid and take him or her back to a seat in the crowd. No more special stage seat for you when you get aced from the bee. You're forced to sit with the rest of us plebes.
• Unlike on television, the audience couldn't see the proper spelling on screen right before the child began spelling it. At home, you can see the word and know right away when a kid has fucked up. Not live in person. You only get confirmation when the bell rings. Hence ... OOOOOOH. Trust me, you feel like the dumbest person alive without that cheat graphic. "Oh, so the word begins with 'PT' instead of just 'T.' Boy, I couldn't have gotten that."
• You could cheat at this bee. They let you bring phones in, so I dunno what would stop you from watching the bee on ESPN on your phone, seeing the word pop up, and then signaling to your kid in code how to spell it. Surely, someone has tried the whole Casino setup where the parent taps a leg and the kid gets a corresponding tap from a sensor strapped to his ribs. I bet if you get caught, Dr. Bailly takes you in the back and you get "the hammer."
• If you watched the broadcast, you saw that many of the kids were plenty comfortable on stage. We like to think of being on stage on national TV as a terrifying moment for all of these kids, but that's not the case. They're not always awkward. Plenty of them were happy to have a stage and a mic all to themselves. Two of them used the word "VIVACIOUS" to describe themselves in the canned segment. These kids did a whole lotta spelling to get to this point. They were pros by the finals. They were used to spelling crazy shit under duress.
But you could see how cracking jokes on stage and acting goofy eased their nerves. The reason Dr. Bailly tries to incorporate humor into his sentence usage is so that the kids feel more at ease with all those people staring at them. And at the beginning, that seemed to work well. Kids like Vismaya Kharkar and Vanya Shivashankar were hamming it up, clearly enjoying the chance to crack wise. But as the competition wore on, as the field got smaller and smaller, you could see that humor couldn't stave off the tension quite as well. On two words, Kharkar covered her face with her hands, and I thought maybe that was a visualization technique. But then I thought that maybe she was bawling her eyes out from the strain. You can put a good face on that situation only for so long before your anxiety is laid bare. They can try to hide it all they like, but they're still all just kids.
• Samantha Ponder was also part of the broadcast, interviewing kids backstage and wrapping up canned segments from the side of the stage.
• As you've probably seen, kids have all kind of techniques up on stage to help them visualize the word they're spelling. Some kids spell the word on their palm. Other use their sleeve. Some kids take the placard hanging from their neck and use it as a pad, spelling out words that way (I saw one kid do this on the side of the placard that had his name on it. Wouldn't you get all the letters mixed up?). I wanted to know if kids who didn't use those techniques looked down on the kids who did, so I asked finalist Chetan Reddy, who didn't do any of that fancy business, if spelling words on your hand was jayvee crap.
"Nah," he laughed.
"So you just picture the word in your head?"
"Does it appear letter by letter, or does it show up fully formed?"
"Fully formed, usually."
"Is it harder to visualize the word with everyone staring at you?"
"I don't really think about everyone when I'm on stage."
"You're just dialed into the word."
Chetan was knocked out in Round 10 on "KABURI" (he spelled it "CABURRI"). He looked devastated by the result.
• If I were one of those kids, I'd wear sunglasses on stage, Phil Hellmuth-style. You'll never see what I'm thinking, Dr. Bailly. DEAL WITH IT.
• Speaking of Dr. Bailly, he and the rest of the judges sat a long table in front of the stage, looking like Congressional witnesses about to give testimony. Virtually every kid who trotted up to the mic asked Dr. Bailly for every possible hint—the definition, the etymology, the part of speech, the roots of the word's syllables, etc. It was like watching a batter hit six foul balls in a row, fighting off pitch after pitch in the hopes that the pitcher will give them SOMETHING to work with. You could see it in the spellers' eyes when the judges confirmed a word root for them that they had been looking for. Once they got the root, they knew the word.
Often, the kids would duel with Bailly as to the word's pronunciation. They would say the word, then he would say it back, then they would say it again, and then he would say it. They were trying to get the clearest pronunciation out of him, so that they didn't miss a single sound. One kid asked Bailly if she had pronounced the word correctly. "I can't tell you that," he replied.
• During the finals, I saw a tall, lanky kid named Charlie Donahue, from Traverse City, Mich., sitting in the crowd, spelling along with each finalist. He would write the word down in a notebook and then see how he did versus the contestant up on stage. Charlie was knocked out before the semifinals.
"I missed out by one point," he told me. "MOREL" was the word that did him in on the computer test. Like Citsay, he didn't mind getting kicked out that way. It was still better to him than hearing that bell. You get your computer results soon after taking the test, so you know in advance if your computer score crippled your chances or not. Whatever new wrinkles the bee throws at the kids, they learn to adapt. They accept the new rules and try their best to win within them. It's quite remarkable to see, frankly.
In between watching the finals, Charlie sat in his chair and did a Rubik's Cube. His dad told me he could solve it in less than 60 seconds. I believed him.
"Can you do it that fast, too?" I asked his dad.
"I can do one side in about 10 minutes."
• The atmosphere at the bee is very supportive. I went around looking for nutbar stage parents, but most of the parents were either A) pleasant or B) too media savvy to act like insane people in front of a reporter. These parents weren't talking to the media for the first time. The finalists who got knocked out late were all given standing ovations (genuine ones). The kids all high-fived one another when they got words right. Whatever cutthroat elements of the competition existed only existed under the surface, or behind closed doors. With one glaring exception ...
• I can't begin to tell you how fucked-up ESPN has made this event. In addition to changing the very rules of competition, ESPN made these poor kids tape canned segment after canned segment. Some of these kids were natural extroverts, but not all of them were. I can only imagine how awkward it is for a shy 12-year-old to have to dance around in sunglasses for an ESPN producer and then watch that canned footage up on the big screen with everyone in the house watching it. There were so many canned segments in the beginning—including a sketch in which Dr. Bailly re-enacts those AT&T ads with the dude in a classroom asking kids easy questions; a shitty Tom Rinaldi piece that reminded you that "every word is the World Series"; a montage of ESPN's 20 years covering the bee; and a moment in which a kid tells the audience the new format is a "win-win for the Bee"—that it took a full 42 minutes to get through the first round of the finals. Without all that shit, it probably would have taken six minutes. But in their quest to Olympify the competition, ESPN added shitloads of filler. This is why a computer knocks you out now, to fit in a segment in which Sam Ponder asks people around Washington to spell the president's name right. (Ponder noted that only one person she talked to spelled Obama's name correctly. He was from Japan.)
• And ESPN's opening sequence to the bee was REALLY fucked up. It had a harsh female voiceover saying, "IN LIFE THERE ARE WINNERS AND THERE ARE LOSERS. YOU CAN EITHER SPELL THE WORD OR YOU CAN'T. IT IS OFTEN SAID THAT THE WORD IS YOUR FRIEND BUT THIS IS A LIE. THE WORD IS HERE TO DEFEAT YOU." Way to ease the pressure on these kids, ESPN. Assholes. What is wrong with you people?
• There were so many breaks in the action for commercials that I started to wonder what would happen if I screamed "BLOWJOB!" during one of the long pauses. I refrained. One day, someone will have the guts to do it.
• When kids didn't know a word, they usually did a poor job of hiding it. They telegraphed it with their faces. When Grace Remmer of St. Augustine, Fla., got knocked out (with "MELOCOTON"), you could see the panic in her eyes. When the bell rang, she started to choke up and said, "Thank you everybody," as the crowd rose to its feet. It was devastating.
• But there were times when kids were absolutely blindsided by the bell. When Syamantak Payra misspelled "CIPOLLINO" (he only used one "L"), he looked like someone had smacked him in the face. Some of these kids broke down immediately after leaving the stage (when Vanya got axed, she sat in her mom's lap), but others like Payra were too stunned to offer a visible emotional reaction. Some, like Amber Born, shook off a consolation hug from their mothers because they needed a moment to collect themselves and process everything. Maybe they didn't want to look weak.
• With a few finalists left, ESPN had a camera trained on the parents of any kid still spelling up on stage, and I can't imagine it's fun to watch your kid compete for $30,000 with a 500,000-watt floodlight two inches from your grill.
• At the end, the last kid standing was bee veteran Arvind Mahankali, who finally won the thing on "KNAIDEL" (though it was his spelling of "DEHNSTUFE" in an earlier round that really brought the house down). When Arvind was declared the winner, two confetti cannons went off on either side of him and showered him for what seemed like 90 minutes. Arvind barely blinked the whole time, either due to shock (again, they're still just kids) or because he probably would rather have walked off stage to be with his family than stand there and get blasted with 800 hundred pounds of shredded paper.
Off to the side, runner-up Pranav Sivakumar got all the secondhand confetti. He wasn't escorted off the stage right away like the other finalists. He had to sit there and get bombarded while everyone cheered for Arvind. You could see that he looked pretty broken up about it. There was nowhere for him to hide. He had to watch.
I don't know if this will be a moment that haunts Pranav forever. Maybe you need those kinds of moments as a child. Maybe that's what gives you the motivation needed to go far in the world, as Paige Kimble noted. We all need a bit of humiliation early in life, a small inoculation against the many embarrassments to come.
That's not the evil part. The evil part is that the bee has given itself over so completely to TV—to ESPN, in particular, which warps everything it touches. The bee has replaced its brain with television's brain. IT IS OFTEN SAID THAT THE WORD IS YOUR FRIEND BUT THIS IS A LIE. THE WORD IS HERE TO DEFEAT YOU. Those are meaningless hype-sounds composed by someone who got drunk on Facenda voiceovers. Inflated stakes, overcooked drama, reality cut to fit the ad buy—that's just the Bristol way. The problem with the bee isn't that we're exposing kids to too much humiliation at too young an age; it's that we're exposing them to too much ESPN.
Whatever indignities ESPN threw their way, whatever result befell them, the kids here seemed determined to make a positive experience out of the bee. Kids have bigger dreams than you and I do, and they BELIEVE those dreams more ardently than you and I believe them. You don't ever want to see those dreams crushed. You just want them to be ... tempered. Shaped. And the event does that all too well. The bee itself isn't evil. It's just hard, and hard is good.