Excerpt: The Final Day of the 2005 National Spelling Bee, Washington, D.C.
It’s nine in the morning, and I’m standing on stage at the National Spelling Bee. At this hour the cavernous ballroom in the Grand Hyatt is almost empty, except for Jim Close, father of Kerry Close, who got here early to stake out the best seat. In one hour the great conflagration will begin, the final day of competition, with its massive media coverage, its anxious parents, and its more-than-anxious spellers. But at this hour the ballroom is calm, almost ghostly.
I stand where the spellers will stand, at the microphone, looking out into the hall. Focused on this stage is a set of six spotlights, suspended from the ceiling; they are so klieg-light bright they obscure the top half of my field of vision. With the lights in my eyes the hall appears to recede into inky dimness, and it seems I’m suspended, even floating, over a sea of seats. As my eyes adjust, I see a daunting sight: At the back of the hall, on a raised platform, is a row of sixteen video cameras, all pointed directly at me.
As my eyes further adjust, I notice something still more unsettling. Down in front of the stage is a wall, a kind of barricade, behind which will sit a cadre of judges and officials. In the middle, on a raised platform, are seats for a pronouncer and his assistant. On either side will sit all manner of timekeepers, record keepers, and word judges, all focused intently on whoever stands at this microphone. With that thought in mind, I’m relieved to be a reporter who can step off stage, rather than a speller who will be inspected and detected by this squad of watchers.
As I step offstage, a teenage staffer walks in with the Bee trophy, the 2-foot-tall gold loving cup that today’s winner will hoist high as countless cameras flash. He’s carrying it casually, like it’s just a thing, but as he places it on its onstage pedestal, it assumes magic powers. It gleams, and, most powerfully, it offers its winner a place in the record books. Those who compete today will remember who placed number two, but no one else will. Long after today’s $28,000 first prize is spent, the champion’s name will sit quietly in the record book, and will be referred to with the laurel wreath, Winner, 2005, Scripps National Spelling Bee.
That individual will be able to rightfully boast of having taken an expansive lingual journey; he or she must be conversant in Latin, Greek, French, and a host of other languages, must have a breathtaking vocabulary, and must possess upper-level conceptual skills. They must be willing to work long hours in single-minded dedication to a goal. They must believe in themselves enough to think they can win. And, most challenging of all, they must put all these abilities together in the pressure of the moment, under great stress, as thousands of viewers watch. Today’s contest is about maturity and presence of mind as well as spelling skills. The winner, in short, must be a true intellectual athlete.
All across the country, as the hour nears, people are switching on their televisions, turning to ESPN, and wondering: Who will become the champion today?