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The Scripps National Spelling Bee Championship Gains More Attention

June 1, 2006 at 6:45 PM EDT
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FINOLA HACKETT, Spelling Bee Competitor: Bdelloid. B-d-e-l-l-o-i-d,
bdelloid.

RAY SUAREZ: The word means “like or relating to a
leech.” And correctly spelling it just put 14-year-old Finola Hackett a
step closer to being crowned the queen bee of this year’s annual Scripps
National Spelling Bee, a competition that’s always been popular but has gained
more and more attention in recent years.

This May, roughly 275 regional champs descended on Washington, D.C.,
for the annual event. The contestants hail from all 50 states and sometimes use
their own peculiar methods to survive to the next round.

And international competitors travel from as far away as New Zealand
to throw their hats in the ring. The prize: a big trophy; big checks, totaling
over $37,000; and bragging rights for a lifetime.

Since 1994, the bee has been broadcast exclusively on the
cable sports network, ESPN, but this year, as it grows in ratings, the bee
makes its debut on ESPN’s broadcast parent network, ABC, on its primetime
lineup, tonight at 8 o’clock Eastern.

ANNOUNCER: … only on ABC.

RAY SUAREZ: The two-hour finale also includes mini-profiles
of the contestants.

SAMIR PATEL, National Spelling Bee Champion 2005: I am Samir
Patel, and I am a verb-a-maniac.

RAY SUAREZ: The competition’s switch to primetime was the
latest in the growing buzz around the bee. It’s also inspired big-screen hits.

SPELLING BEE COMPETITOR: Logorrhea. L-o-g-o-r-r-h-e-a.

SPELLING BEE JUDGE: That is correct.

RAY SUAREZ: The 2002 documentary and Academy Award nominee
“Spellbound,” last year’s “Bee Season,” based on a
best-selling novel by the same name, and “Akeelah and the Bee,”
released this April…

LAURENCE FISHBURNE, “Akeelah and the Bee”: You
want to win what?

KEKE PALMER, “Akeelah and the Bee”: I want to win
the National Spelling Bee!

LAURENCE FISHBURNE: Yes!

RAY SUAREZ: … a fictional account of an African-American
girl from the inner-city of Los
Angeles who wins the national bee. Bee-fever has even
hit Broadway. The musical, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling
Bee,” won two Tony awards last year.

In the meantime, tonight these 13 finalists will have a
chance to become a celebrity in their own right, provided they get their ABCs
in the right order.

Hitting the mainstream

RAY SUAREZ: For more about the bee and the students whoparticipate, I'm joined by James Maguire, author of the book "AmericanBee: The National Spelling Bee and the Culture of Word Nerds."

Well, why do spelling bees suddenly seem to be in thenational cultural fast lane? What happened?

JAMES MAGUIRE, Author, "American Bee": They arebig right now. We have seen a little boomlet in spelling bees.

I think the thing that really sparked it was the 2002spelling documentary "Spellbound." But I think the thing that hasreally enabled it to catch on is, you know, the spelling bee is the originalreality TV show and, of course, reality TV is very big right now.

I kind of hate to make the comparison, because I think thespelling bee has a lot more value than a lot of reality TV, but it's verysimilar. You know, we go round by round. Spellers are eliminated. We sort ofget to know the spellers and their little idiosyncrasies, and finally we get tothose last few rounds that we see, you know, who's going to win.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, this afternoon a lot of spellers wereeliminated. They've gotten down to the final 13.

JAMES MAGUIRE: Right.

RAY SUAREZ: From what you saw in your reporting, what arethose kids likely to be doing in these final hours before they head to the big,final round?

JAMES MAGUIRE: Right. Well, of course, worrying and beinganxious and tense, to be sure, but there's probably some last-minute studying. Andwhat these kids do to be able to handle these large words is they really do alot of root word work.

So they study, you know, roots of, you know, Latin, Greek,French, German, Italian, Spanish. That way they can spell words they've neveractually seen before.

Cut from a different cloth?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, let's talk a little bit more about that,because to be a speller at this level you can't just be a good reader orsomeone who's gradually acquired a wide vocabulary. You have to do specialprep, no?

JAMES MAGUIRE: You really do. I mean, the bee organizers putout something called "The Consolidated Word List," which is 23,000words long. And these top spellers, most of the kids tonight, will havememorized that entire 23,000-word list.

So they've memorized an enormous amount; they know theirword roots. And, of course, there's also an element of luck. I mean, there's noway around that. Because in the Webster's Unabridged Dictionary, there's475,000 words. And so, you know, you never know what word you're going to getor what word your competitor is going to get, and there's always upsets everyyear.

RAY SUAREZ: So you could go out on a word that, if you hadbeen one kid ahead or one kid behind, you would have gotten?

JAMES MAGUIRE: You know, the winds of fate really blowunpredictably at the bee.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you call it in your subtitle "TheCulture of Word Nerds."

JAMES MAGUIRE: Right.

RAY SUAREZ: Are these kids like a tribe apart, a differentcut of kids?

JAMES MAGUIRE: You know, these are kids who really love tostudy, many of them, which, you know -- call that an unusual trait, but theystudy often, you know, seven days a week, you know, month after month,sometimes year after year until they finally make it to the bee.

You know, after I've talked with a lot of them, though, I'vefound out that they're a lot more normal than you might expect. When youactually get to know the kids, I mean, they're more well-rounded, really justvery, very interested in this one topic.

RAY SUAREZ: They disproportionately are drawn from immigrantfamilies, families from South and East Asia.

JAMES MAGUIRE: Right.

RAY SUAREZ: Have you thought about why?

JAMES MAGUIRE: Yes. Well, you know, Indian-Americans arevery, very strong at the bee. And, of course, an Indian-American boy won in1985, and I think it inspired a lot of immigrant pride.

I think recent Indian immigrants said to themselves,"Well, if one of our own can win this quintessentially American contest,then we really want to be, you know, interested in this." SoIndian-Americans put a lot of emphasis on it.

Actually, of the last seven championships, five have beenwon by Indian-Americans.

RAY SUAREZ: That's a tremendous number.

JAMES MAGUIRE: Yes, really, it's a very strong presence ofIndian-Americans at the National Spelling Bee.

Not your father's competition

RAY SUAREZ: There are some knocks on the bee, one that rotelearning is prized over real comprehension and knowing what these words mean.

JAMES MAGUIRE: Well, the thing is, you know, these kids havea sprawling vocabulary. I mean, there's a lot of homonyms there. And so if youare just doing rote memorization, you don't make it to the finals. You mightmake it to the national bee possibly, but to get to the final rounds it isreally all about understanding.

RAY SUAREZ: But, on the other hand, having just brought in acriticism, I guess I should say that it's nice to see kids that age celebratedfor something other than athletic prowess or being pretty.

JAMES MAGUIRE: Yes, exactly. I mean, that's the thing Ireally love about it. I mean, it is not just spelling, you know? It'setymology; it's vocabulary; it's parts of speech. You know, the bee reallyencourages reading. All these kids are really big readers.

So, I mean, I love the fact that it's on primetime. It'sgoing to advertise the idea of, you know, studying, and reading, and learning.

RAY SUAREZ: Is this a harder competition to win than itwould have been 20 or 40 years ago?

JAMES MAGUIRE: It's far harder. I mean, if you look back atsome of the earlier decades, the words were much easier. I mean, the word"knack" was the winning word one year, you know, k-n-a-c-k. You know,"therapy" was a winning word one year.

You know, in simpler times, kids just showed up and spelled.Now these kids are really working year-round so those kind of words would justbe, you know, round one or two words.

Under pressure

RAY SUAREZ: Well, how do they handle the pressure? I mean,they are, what, nine to 15 years old or so, and they seem to be handlingthemselves quite well on national television. Are there some who aren'thandling the pressure that well?

JAMES MAGUIRE: You know, handling the pressure is a big partof it. And it is difficult for these kids. And I know they really feel thestress of it.

But if you look at the winners and the top finalists, theseare kids who can really handle pressure. And it really sort of distinguishesthe kids who can just spell well from the kids who can really, you know, handlethe trial by fire.

RAY SUAREZ: Are there any cases that you came across wherekids were really sort of heavily burdened by this and it wasn't fun anymore?

JAMES MAGUIRE: Well, I've seen some kids -- there was oneboy last year that I know is extremely well-prepared. He had just studied, andstudied, and studied. And there was an early round, and he came across a wordthat was not too hard, and he just sort of psyched himself out.

And he spelled it really rapidly, even before he thought,and you could just see him sort of bolt upright like, "Oh, no, I've blownit." You know, the pressure got to him.

RAY SUAREZ: James Maguire, thanks a lot.

JAMES MAGUIRE: Thanks, Ray.