The annual gathering known as the National Spelling Bee is much more than a spelling contest. This weeklong get-together is actually a bee in the traditional sense, like the barn-building bees of yesteryear. It’s a gathering of neighbors, in this case from all over the country, with a full palette of socializing: a pizza party, a barbecue, tours of Washington, D.C., and days and nights of nearly continuous chatting.
And it’s a big group. This year’s Bee hosts 273 spellers. Most are accompanied by two parents, siblings, and sometimes a grandparent or uncle; some bring their coach. Filling out the gathering is a full complement of staffers and Bee officials along with their spouses and kids. Altogether, the group numbers about a thousand people.
When this gathering takes up residence at the Grand Hyatt, an 888-room affair four blocks from the White House, it essentially takes over the hotel. The Hyatt features a voluminous open-air atrium and numerous conversation nooks, and the Bee group occupies much of this space, forming a community whose members originate everywhere from Martha’s Vineyard, where the wealthy go to enjoy the Atlantic breeze, to Teec Nos Pos, a Navajo Indian reservation in Arizona.
Over the course of Bee Week, the group feels a range of emotions in tandem, almost like one collective organism. On Sunday it’s the lightness of registration and a pizza party; Monday is the neighborliness of a Memorial Day barbecue, with games and assorted festivities; Tuesday, as families tour Washington, D.C., presents a growing sense of anticipation; on Wednesday, as competition begins, lightness gives way to intensity; and Thursday, as the crowd leans forward in its seats, offers the nail-biting culmination of the Bee’s final rounds. After the group takes a collective breath, Friday provides the feel-good congratulations of an awards banquet, and on Saturday comes a long round of bleary-eyed and heartfelt good-byes. It’s a complete emotional life cycle.