The Agony and the Ecstaticness

The National Spelling Bee on ESPN, Part II.

Somewhere in Round 16, I start to turn on Samir Patel. He was never my favorite—that would be like rooting for the Yankees at the height of their winning streak—but as he barrels on, I’ve begun to take an active dislike to him; with his cherubic face and preternaturally confident demeanor, he’s like a miniature, South Asian Brad Pitt.

In Round 18, the only girl left standing among the final three, Aliya Robin Deri, gets dinged out on “trouvaille,” a French word meaning, ironically, “a lucky find.” Too bad—it would have been nice to have a female champ, the first since Nupur Lala, whose 1999 win was documented in the hit movie Spellbound. But Samir and the other remaining kid, an eighth-grader from San Diego named Anurag Kashyap, show no signs of tiring as the big-gun words are wheeled out: Is it possible they’ll get through all the remaining championship words without a miss, making them co-champions for only the fourth time in the history of the bee?

Spell this! Click image to expand.
Spell this!

In Round 19, the mighty Samir Patel, that wee bastion of infallibility, is finally dinged out. His Waterloo word: “roscian,” of, relating to, or skilled in acting. But it’s not over yet—his opponent still has to get another word right in order to take the championship. When Anurag breezes through “appoggiatura” (a musical term for an embellishing note) there are screams from the audience—we’re talking shrill, girly screams. Does Anurag have a teenybopper following? Or is this the high-pitched keening of Samir’s aggrieved fandom? Watching a shell-shocked Patel seek comfort from his mother on the sidelines, I feel a pang of guilt at my brief, competition-born surge of antipathy toward a little kid whose only crime is being too damn smart. But at least at age 11, he’ll have several more shots at the title.

Questioned afterward by the cloying ESPN commentator, Anurag Kashyap seems, for the moment, incapable of speaking the very language he’s just wrestled heroically to the ground. Close to tears, he holds his cardboard number placard up in front of his face, hiding from the camera like the shy, overwhelmed kid he is. This commentator already earned my scorn earlier in the bee when she patronizingly summarized these kids’ staggering grasp of etymology as the work of “little detectives.” Now she asks the winner one of those classic sports-interview non-questions—”What’s going through your head right now? Put the emotion into words.” The exhausted champion stammers out a non-answer, a word cobbled together nervously on the spot: “Ecstaticness?” But it only takes a second for the well-trained word geek within to issue a self-correction: “Ecstasy, sorry.”  2:42 p.m.

It’s been a slow week for TV, that annual parched slog between the end of the regular season and the start of the new summer shows. The only thing really worth tuning in for (besides Tom Cruise’s nationally televised process of decompensation—click here and here for clips) are the finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., which are being televised live on ESPN today from 1 p.m. ET until, well, as long as it takes.

Full disclosure: I myself was a district spelling bee champ in the fourth grade, so I find a particular thrill in these alphabetic showdowns. To this day, I can never hear “conundrum,” the word I lost on at regionals, without cringing. Still, whatever your own history with the gnarly brambles of the English language, this is great television, with the character development of live theater and the thrill of unknowability that comes with any sports event. If ESPN’s programmers had half a brain, they’d rerun this tonight in prime time. As it is, if you’re stuck at work and in need of a little stomach-churning suspense, I’ll try to run down a few high points here:

Round 6, 1:10 p.m. Favoring Samir Patel in this competition is like having Po as your favorite Teletubby—an unabashed vote for straight-up cuteness. Samir’s only 11, one of two kids his age left in the competition, and he tied for third place at nationals two years ago when he was only 9. After spelling “filiciform” (shaped like a fern) correctly, he calls out “Thanks, Mom!”, getting a big laugh from the crowd.

Round 7, 1:25 p.m. I think I have a favorite: Katharine Close, a 12-year-old from New Jersey who answers all questions with her hands crammed into the pockets of her standard-issue spelling bee pants (all the kids are dressed the same, in khakis and a white polo shirt with the Scripps logo). At first I think this is because she’s so relaxed, but the announcer reveals that she’s holding onto an angel charm she keeps in her pocket. Something about this contrast between apparent nonchalance and secret superstition wins me over. Later, when she’s dinged out on the impossible word “laetrile” (an experimental cancer drug), she will schlump offstage, hands dangling at her sides for the first time. Her angel has abandoned her.

2:01 p.m. As Alexis Lionel Ducote, a big, methodical kid from Louisiana, agonizes forever over the word “rucervine” (of, relating to, or like a deer of the genus Rucervus), the camera cuts menacingly to a shot of the “you’re out” bell, a genuine, old-fashioned dinner bell with carved filigree, which sits on the table with the judges. The literalness of this prop captures everything that’s endearingly analog about the spelling competition. But the bell, for now, remains silent: With nine seconds to go in overtime, the “rucervine” kid nails the word.

Round 8, 2:10 p.m. Besides everyone’s favorite Teletubby Samir, the only other 11-year-old left in the competition is Evan O’Dorney, a tiny, buck-toothed home-schoolee with the classic nasal nerd voice, like Milhouse on The Simpsons. He gets dinged out on “athyreosis,” provoking an audible sigh of disappointment from the audience. It’s easy to feel sorry for these little kids with their high-pitched voices, but anyone who’s a regular watcher knows the true tragedies are the 14-year-old eighth-graders who have been trying for several years. There’s nothing sadder than aging out.

2:34 p.m. Immediately upon hearing the word “hooroosh,” Samir correctly guesses the definition, “Does it mean a great commotion?” The word’s etymology is maddeningly vague: “It’s imitative.” Yes, but imitative of what bloody language? The kid’s madly firing synapses are all but visible through his skull as he asks for alternate pronunciations and definitions: There are none. He repeats the word three times fast, leans his forehead against the mic for a full 10 seconds, then spells the word correctly in one short burst and takes his seat to a great hooroosh of applause.

It’s all too much for me. I’ll be back when we get to the final few rounds. … 1:09 p.m.