Chapter One excerpt: the 2004 National Spelling Bee, Washington, D.C.
David Tidmarsh is breathing like a runaway pony. And no wonder: The slender fourteen-year-old stands onstage facing six judges and a crowded ballroom, with all eyes on him. In the front row sits an Associated Press reporter, dispatching updates to newspapers across the country. Near the stage huddles an ESPN television crew, beaming David’s visage to thousands of viewers. The roving cameraman moves to catch his every grimace; another camera, a crane-operated affair swooping toward the stage, resembles a high-tech dinosaur that might devour David’s 110-pound frame as an afternoon snack. A few feet away, also on the red-carpeted stage, sits his mother; the tape later reveals she has a tear suspended at the edge of her right eye, waiting for her son’s next word.
David faces gaminerie, a French word meaning an impudent or roguish spirit. His face, as wide open as the farmland around his hometown of South Bend, Indiana, jogs quickly through a crowd of emotions: fear, hope, pure anxiety, even a short smile. He’s a self-effacing kid, the kind of boy who, when you express amazement at how hard he’s studied, replies, “Yeah, I guess so.” He steps closer to the microphone and we hear his hyperventilating breath. A few audience members even chuckle lightly—his deep breathing right into the microphone sounds something like Darth Vader’s demonic respiration—but the mood in the room is far too close for real laughter.
He asks the official pronouncer, Jacques Bailly, the questions allowed each speller—definition, sample sentence, language of origin—and as he does, his already rapid respiration starts to sprint away from him. By the time he asks about the language of origin, his voice is reduced to a whisper. He’s out of breath. He struggles to recover, and uses his knowledge of etymology to dig for clues. “Is it related to the, um, English word gamin meaning an impudent child?” Bailly demurs at the query, noting the rule against answering questions about relations between English words. “Okay, that’s fine,” David says, pleasantly, and then the hyperventilating starts galloping again. He bites his lip and pauses. Finally, with effort, he gathers his breath. He’s ready to spell.
So here it is, in the cavernous ballroom of the Grand Hyatt in downtown Washington, D.C.: the home stretch of the 2004 Scripps National Spelling Bee. Soon, one of the few remaining spellers will be dubbed the champion, the photographers will move in for the glory shot, and a new name will be entered in the record books.
Just offstage gleams the trophy, a florid gold loving cup about 2 feet high. Along with the cup comes a bounty of spoils: some $20,000 in cash prizes, encyclopedias, and assorted gewgaws. The winner typically meets the president, is interviewed by Diane Sawyer (and myriad others), appears on David Letterman, and is lauded by The New York Times as one of the nation’s bright young minds. Wendy Guey, the 1996 champion and now a Harvard undergrad, will direct a special round of applause to the winner when she speaks at this year’s Bee awards banquet.
Now, in the third day of competition, the original 265 spellers have been whittled down to the last hardy survivors. All of the kids came here with dreams, all having battled their way up from a starting pool of some ten million spellers. To earn a spot at Nationals, they all had to win some combination of school, city, and regional bees, competing against ever better spellers at each stage. So all of them are smart and hardworking and lucky—and luck plays a determining role at Nationals, as any Bee veteran will attest. If not for chance, many of the 265 might have survived to these final rounds.
Yet chance favors a prepared mind, and in that regard those who make it to these final rounds go several steps beyond. As a foundation, they have what’s possessed by all top orthographers (an orthographer is a speller—the kind who doesn’t deign to use spell-check): Each has a working knowledge of the world’s major languages, a deep understanding of roots and etymology—which equates to a sprawling vocabulary—and an intuitive grasp of that unpredictable beast known as the English language. Inarguably, they are word geeks, true language nuts. If the word eccentric could be used as an honorific, then, truth be told, they are all a dash eccentric. Moreover, each has something extra that sets them apart.
For Kerry Close, for example, making it to the home stretch is a sign of her competitive spirit. All summer long she sails competitively, her blond hair blowing in the breeze as she mans a one-person sailboat in races off the New Jersey shore. She spells like she sails—to win. She is, improbably, an 11-year-old who’s in the final rounds of a contest dominated by 13- and 14-year-olds. Even more unlikely given her eleven years, this is her third year here. And last year—at age 10—she tied for 16th out of 263 spellers.
Early in the competition I asked her how she was doing, and she responded only with a wordless, uneasy grimace. She is, by her parents’ description, a tad on the shy side, and also clearly feeling the anxiety of the competition. But you don’t see that onstage. While some spellers hem and haw, stalling for time while their brain searches for that buried verbal nugget, Kerry is all business. She takes whatever clues the judges provide—definition, origin, sample sentence—and goes to work. No fuss. She has used this focused intensity to fell such monsters as Bunraku, panmyelopathy, and warison.
If Kerry Close is feeling the pressure, then Akshay Budigga is just barely treading water. A thirteen-year-old whose coach-mother speaks nine languages, Akshay has studied daily for years alongside his brother, the 2002 champion. That his brother won the Bee creates a special incentive, or perhaps a special obstacle: If Akshay wins this year, it will be the first time in the Bee’s seventy-seven-year history that siblings have won. And the Colorado boy might do it: In round after round he has spelled like Noah Webster’s great-grandson.
The stress, however, is taking its toll. Earlier in the competition, Akshay faced alopecoid, a Greek word meaning like a fox, vulpine. It wasn’t his toughest challenge, but as he stood at the microphone, a large wave began washing over him, threatening to submerge him. He hadn’t slept much the night before and had hardly eaten that day. Too nervous. Adding to the wooziness was that single fact, repeated so often throughout the competition: He and his brother might be the first sibling winners in the history of the Bee. That potential honor had loomed large since his brother’s 2002 win, and Akshay had trained incessantly. Facing alopecoid, he stood just a few words away from this august achievement. But the water was rising ever higher.
A round-faced boy with round glasses and short dark hair, he loves to hike the mountain trails near his house in Colorado Springs. Yet that cool mountain air was far from him now. As he stood facing the expectant audience, he seemed to retreat within himself. His voice had grown quieter in the later rounds. Finally, he began to speak in a slumberous, affectless monotone. Asking the definition and part of speech of alopecoid, his already sleepy voice fell to a mumble. He paused, shutting his eyes, as if on the verge of sleep. But just a moment later his soft brown eyes jolted open like he had glimpsed a terrifying sight. He staggered back a step, unsteady, and then…he fainted.
The crowd gasped at his fall, a crumpling tumble that landed him flat on the stage. Dozens of adults abruptly stood, ready to rush to help. But before they could take more than a step, he was back on his feet and at the microphone, like a pugilist downed by an unseen punch who rises to fight on gamely. His eyes fluttered open. As numerous adults paused in mid-rescue, a stream of letters ushered forth from his mouth: a, l, o, p, e,—he sounded like a sleepwalker, could he spell correctly in his dazed state?—c, o, i, d. “That is correct,” said head judge Mary Brooks, prompting a deep, sustained round of applause—and considerable amazement—from the crowded ballroom. Such is the mettle of the finalists here at the 2004 National Spelling Bee.