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Scripps National Spelling Bee 2018
The Scripps National Spelling Bee is a numbers game. Take seven, for instance, which is the number of different questions you can ask the judges about a word you’ve been given. Or 519, which is how many spellers are in this year’s competition. Four is the number of days of competition in Spelling Week and nine is the number of decades the Bee has been active. And then there is 30. Thirty is the number that spells disaster. With thirty seconds remaining in your two minute window, the cool blue honeycomb backdrop enclosing the stage at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center outside of Washington D.C. turns a violent shade of red. It’s a warning that after seven questions and 518 peers and four days of rigor, your shot at victory may be coming to an abrupt close. You say the word and say each letter, say the word again, and pray you don’t hear that bell. The bell means you made an error. Usually just one. One transposed letter or one misunderstood root word—all it takes is one.
Like I said, the Scripps National Spelling Bee is a numbers game.
This year’s participants already know that. They’re smart kids. Crazy smart and well-spoken, and at some point, each of the six participants interviewed for this piece allude to the fact that they don’t expect to win. That’s because the spelling bee is a survivalist sport. There are no “plays of the game” or MVPs. You can be a hero one round and eliminated the next.
While the odds of being one of the 500 chosen out of roughy 11 million spelling bee competitors seem daunting, everyone involved maintains the only real qualification needed to make it to Washington D.C. is hard work. Dr. Jacques Bailly, official bee announcer for the past 16 years, is the strongest advocate for the bee’s process. While many of the top spellers are studying out of the Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Bailly insists making it to the finals can be done with less, “If you don’t have that $140—and that’s a lot to some people—you can still get that Webster’s collegiate dictionary for a dollar at a yard sale. And that’ll get you to Washington, if you study hard.”
But since its first year, or even 1980 when Dr. Bailly won, the bee has changed. The finale now takes place under the glaring eye of TV cameras that beam the competition into the homes of nearly one million people. And where “knack” might have been the winning word in 1928, 2016’s final hurdle was “Feldenkrais.” The original $500 prize is now $40,000. The competitors, the difficulty, the pressure: it’s all been taken up a notch.
And in the middle of a week that’ll see them face off against 500-plus peers from 8 different countries who range in age from eight to fifteen-years-old—some of whom have competed as many as five times—six hopefuls took a little time out of studying to talk about how they got to the national stage.
According to the National Association of Educational Progress, Alabama ranks 46th in the nation for reading comprehension. Also, 45th in college preparedness. But 13-year-old Erin Howard, of Huntsville, has some statistics of her own. In 2016, she tied for 22nd at the bee. Last year, seventh. How in a state whose educational record hovers near the bottom does a girl like Howard rise to the top?
“I’m so glad you asked that,” says her mother, Adrienne. “She’s gotten support every step of the way from teachers at her school. Her second grade teacher is the first one who recognized [her intellect] and really encouraged it. Jerilyn Pang—Mrs. Pang. We love Mrs. Pang.” She passed on a copy of Akeelah and the Bee to Howard. That was the same year Adrienne allowed her daughter to stay up and watch the bee on TV. It’s been a love story ever since.
She is the product of public school—a statistic she shares with 65% of her competitors. It’s those teachers who have given her harder words for her weekly spelling lists. They recognize her potential, work tirelessly to support it, and celebrate her her achievements. Adrienne says, “Continuing up to now, the teachers have always been supportive. They sign a book with well wishes or have thrown a surprise party. Howard has been really happy with it.”
Like a lot of spellers, Howard found her stride early on. She says, succinctly, “I started reading at a very early age, and I kept on reading.” Spelling soon joined the reading, and between the two, you’ve got a serious love of learning. “I think that’s why spelling is such a great competition for me to be in,” she says. “It’s all about inquiry. I think that’s why I’ve succeeded. I really like asking the questions and getting the answers.”
For die-hard spelling fans, they’ll remember her standing before Dr. Bailly in the finals last year, joking, “Ok, you really have to give me a word I know, right now.” With all those lights and cameras, it’s hard to imagine how someone can keep their cool. “What you’re seeing of me being ‘friendly and charming’ is me shaking out the nerves,” she explains.
“It’s all about inquiry. I think that’s why I’ve succeeded. I really like asking the questions and geting the answers.”
Even her mom is a bit baffled by the candor, saying, “Each time she spoke before the audience, it was a surprise to me. From a coach’s perspective, I’m just like, ‘Focus! Focus on your words!’” But Howard knows what she’s doing. She studies year-round and even puts mock bees together online with friends she’s met from previous competitions—a lot of them she likely would have not met otherwise.
“The first year, that’s what really struck me. There were people from all over. People from Japan, Korea, Africa, Europe,” Adrienne says. “It’s a really great experience to meet each other.” And Howard’s not one to take any of it for granted. “It’s a great opportunity to say hello to the world,” she says.
She continues, “This is the competition I’ve competed in since second grade, and it’s pretty much my life. So I want to say to would-be spellers, never give up. The experience of going up to that microphone and blowing it out of the water will definitely be worth it.”
There are only a few documented cases of actornauts—and most of them aren’t even real. Akash Vukoti, of San Angelo, TX., explains the concept to me. He wanted to be an astronaut, but then he changed his mind, wanting to be an actor. And now he’s wondering, why not both? “I usually refer to this as an ‘astroactor’ or an ‘actornaut,’” he says. I mention the 2013 film Gravity—you know, a typical movie anyone might talk to a child about—but he’s not interested in doing what Sandra Bullock did. “What sounds even better is filming it in real life space,” he says. Duly noted.
Those are lofty dreams for an eight-year-old, but Vukoti is hardly your average third grader. He seemingly treats it all like more of a to-do list and less of a fantasy, and, so far, it’s working. He was inducted into Mensa, the nation’s largest high IQ society, at age three. He won the North South Foundation’s geography bee at five. He holds the title as the youngest male bee competitor. (He first appeared at just six.) And this year, he’s returning for a second time, where he hopes to make it past the preliminaries, where his prior run ended.
“We’re not competing against each other. We’re competing against the dictionary.”
He’s one of the youngest competitor again this year, and it’s almost scary to think he has five more years of eligibility. He’s fluent in three languages (English, Hindi, and Telugu, his mother’s native Indian tongue) and started reading when he was just over a year old. His mother, Chandrakala, remembers seeing his giftedness early. “He always chose the toys, like the alphabet ones,” she recalls. “That’s when we saw something is different about Akash.” They dove head first into education with both Vukoti and his older sister, who also happens to be a member of American Mensa.
Vukoti’s father, Krishna, insists that the North South Foundation has helped elevate his son’s skill set. That’s part of the criticisms that has come with Indian-American children being so dominant at the bee in recent years. I ask Krishna and Chandrakala what their thoughts are on diversity at the bee and the North South Foundation, which gets criticized for only allowing Indian-American students the ability to participate, but it’s Vukoti chimes in first. “‘Be the best you can be’ is the motto of the North South Foundation,” he says, “which answers your question. We’re just trying to be our best.”
And being your best means understanding your opponent, and how to master it. He clarifies, “We’re not competing against each other. We’re competing against the dictionary.” He’s ready, too. He’s taken the longest word in the English language and committed it to memory. What is it? A lung disease that develops after inhaling fine ash, or silica. Then he spells it—all 45 letters. With three separate breaths, he makes his way through Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis.
But when I ask him if he could tell the world one thing about Akash Vukoti, youngest speller in the 2018 Scripps National Spelling Bee, he pauses. “Basically,” he starts, “I would say I’m an eight-year-old from San Angelo, Texas who loves to spell words. Of course, that’s not all of it.”
Of course not. With a vocabulary as wide as his, he’s got much more left to say.
Vasundara Govindarajan isn’t exactly chatty. From Miami, FL., she’s a reserved teenager whose Saturday morning is currently being taken up by rounds of questions about the spelling bee. Her competition style reflects her disposition. She isn’t one to joke with judges or engage with the crowd. She spells. She succeeds. She sits back down. And as an eighth grader, this is her last chance to do it perfectly.
Her mom, Sujatha, is feeling sentimental about the finality. “It’s pretty much a tradition,” she says. “In the regional spelling bee, it’s her tenth year, so it was kind of emotional.” As it is for many of the participating Indian-American students, the bee is a family affair. (Her older brother, Vaidya, once placed ninth nationally.) The recent streak of dominance by South Asian contenders—17 of the last 21 winners have been Indian-American—is partly in thanks to the North South Foundation, a scholarship organization that orchestrates academic competitions for Indian-American children, which Govindarajan has been involved in for 10 years. In 2017, she placed eighth in their bee, her highest finish since she started in the older division and a good sign she’ll go far this year at nationals.
Govindarajan is a proven champion, having won the Miami Herald Bee for the last four years. Her first outing was as a fifth grader and now, as she tackles her third national bee, she admits it’s bittersweet. “It’s a little exciting,” she says, “but also a little bit sad that this will be my last time competing.”
“Nothing in life comes easy… That’s what we always tell them.”
Maintaining a record like hers has little to do with luck and more to do with practice. A lot of practice. She dedicates several hours each day to vocabulary and spelling work. Govindarajan says, “When I don’t have that much homework, I study more.” Her dad, Govind, is her coach, and her brother is a solid backup on visits home from University of Miami. Spelling practice is just another way to spend quality time together.
Both of Govindarajan’s parents came to the U.S. from India. Sujatha followed her husband after he finished his PhD at the University of Florida 21 years ago, and they’ve worked to pass their work ethics on to their children. “Nothing in life comes easy,” Sujatha says of her mantra. “That’s what we always tell them.” They credit the North South Foundation as a resource for extra competition practice, and Sujatha adds, that the Scripps Bee has given both of her children a community they may not have found otherwise.
“People with different interests come there, but we all find one common interest, which is the spelling bee,” Sujatha says. “With that, we have learned a lot of life lessons and connected with others of different groups.” But Govindarajan’s focus isn’t so much on identity politics. She’s more than just a girl who knows her etymologies and root words—and she happily sets the record straight. “I’m not this one person who is a study geek all the time,” she says. After competition, she’s looking forward to the free time that she will fill by playing Pokémon on her 3DS or playing the piano.
But as one journey ends, another begins. Continuing in her brother’s footsteps, she sees herself going to medical school, eventually. “When I grow up, I want to be an oncologist,” Govindarajan says. “I want to find a cure for cancer.”
Those are pretty lofty goals. But so was winning the Miami Herald spelling bee four years in a row.
Nathan Estep is the youngest in household full of Estep spellers. The family affinity began in the unlikeliest of ways. His older brother, Craig, was an awful speller—his dad’s words, for the record. Raising their children in Winchester, VA., George and Kimberly Estep made the decision to homeschool their small army of seven, but when their first son’s third grade spelling scores landed him in the 29th percentile, they knew something had to change. They began using a spelling program called “Spelling Power” and their oldest daughter, Marissa, took to it, becoming the first Estep to make it to the bee.
“I always tell people we are in the National Spelling Bee because our son was such a terrible speller in the third grade,” George says with a laugh. Five kids and nine trips to nationals later, it ends this year with Nathan.
For all the family’s appearances at the competition, this is Estep’s first visit as the competitor. An eighth grader, he earned his spot with a correct spelling of “polities” earlier this year, advancing for both the first and last time. “I’ll finally get to do what my brothers and sister did,” he says through a heavy sigh.
“I always tell people we are in the National Spelling Bee because our son was such a terrible speller in the third grade.”
Though he’s made it out of “black sheep” territory—again, his dad’s words—there’s still a big mountain to climb. George notes, “None of our kids have made it past their preliminary rounds on their first bee.” As George begins to launch into a monologue about how proud he is of all his kids, Estep interrupts. “I could just let you talk the whole time,” he quips. That gumption will serve him well under TV lights.
You’d think the Spelling Bee would be one of the safe spaces in the currently divisive American culture, but with every article that runs, a bevy of comments and opinions from outsiders also get posted. Indian-American families face racial dragging; the Esteps have found people who argue it’s wrong to put the pressure of a national audience on their kids.
“Thank you for not asking if he thought he was going to win,” George says, later. I ask him why and he explains that it’s about so much more than going and winning. All those commenters feel the need to offer the unsolicited parenting advice on how they shouldn’t subject their kids to the scrutiny. “It’s amazing. People will find something negative to say about anything,” George says.
The reality is that the Esteps go to the bee because they enjoy it. And the youngest Estep says the pressure doesn’t faze him, his strategy is all about focus. He says: “At the regional and local level, I just try to focus on the pronouncer and focus on the judges, and when I have the word, just focus on the word.”
And that’s how you kick the title of black sheep.
Plenty of sets of twins have made their way through the Scripps National Spelling Bee rounds over the years, but never identical ones. At least, until now. Garrett and Pierce Bryner of Price, Utah is one of two pairs of that made their way to the national stage this year. (The other, Andrew and Aaron Marcev, hail from from Mississippi.) From the outside, they’re predictably hard to tell apart. But the differences become obvious in conversation. Garrett’s voice is slightly deeper. Pierce is interested in government and debate. Garrett is more of an artsy guy. But most of all, Pierce is making his debut at the bee, joining his brother after his near-finals-run last year.
“I think Garrett wanted this for Pierce more than he did himself,” their mother, Liz, says. In years past, there’s no way that the two of them would have been able to compete together. Utah sends comparatively fewer competitors to the national bee than states like Ohio, which sends 18 finalists. The system, which varies by state, was unbalanced, especially when you have multiple talented spellers in the same city, or in this case, family. Money is also a concern.
The cost to send a speller to Washington fluctuates depending on location but can run well-beyond the $4,000 it takes to send a speller from Virginia. That’s what this year’s inaugural RSVBee program, which places could-be finalists on a point system that factors in competition placement, previous experience, and age, hopes to remedy. An eighth grade second place finisher who previously competed in a national bee will get priority over a younger newbie who will have more chances later. Liz and the boys’ father, Christian are thankful for this year’s caveat, and the twins? They both laugh their way through most of our conversation because while they’re grateful and happy to be going to the bee, they admit that they could be studying harder.
“I’m a hard worker, and I think hard work can take you places, even like New York or Washington D.C.”
Living two hours south of Salt Lake City, both Garrett and Pierce have more on their mind than what words might trip them up this week. “Garrett composes his own music,” Liz says. He hopes to be an author one day as well. And Pierce’s trip to D.C. actually plays into his other goals as well. As his interest toward debate and government increases, the nation’s capital seems like the place for him.
The trip has motivated Pierce to look toward the future. With big goals in mind, he says, “I’m a hard worker, and I think hard work can take you places, even like New York or Washington D.C.”