National Spelling Bee: Scenes from the Semi-Finals

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REUTERS/Larry Downing

Anna-Marie Mitroi Spenger of Utah spells a word in the semifinals of the 2011 Scripps National Spelling Bee contest at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland, June 2, 2011.

Just up the street from the National Harbor in Maryland, America’s fiercest young spellers are battling for the honor of being the country’s top letter-wielder. NewsFeed filed a dispatch from the semi-finals.

On an elaborate stage covered in honeycomb-shaped patterns, kids from across the States sit together and wait for their turn at the microphone. ESPN is covering the Scripps National Spelling Bee, but the contestants clearly care more about the nuances of Greek roots than the cameras. The showdown is taking place in a hotel ballroom, one filled with anxious parents, bored-to-death siblings and reporters literally hanging on the kids’ every letter.

(PHOTOS: The 2011 Scripps National Spelling Bee)

At the oldest, the kids are in eighth grade, but they’re spelling words most adults would be embarrassed to attempt in front of their friends. The boys slightly outnumber the girls late in the morning, and there is a true melting pot, a racial rainbow any school would lust to put on its brochure. Each contestant wears an enormous blue name tag—they’ve practically put them in sandwich boards—bearing their name and number. 209, Anahita. 273, Parker. 147, Ray.

A young boy correctly spells chresard, the water in soil available for plants to absorb. Another nails turophile, a name for a lover of cheese (though he first queried whether the definition was someone who just loooooved the country of Turkey, to much delight in the crowd). Then comes Sunny Levine, a 12-year-old from Akron, Ohio, who struggles with lithrotrity, a surgical procedure involving the breaking down of gallstones. They’re allowed certain questions to help them figure out which way to go. What is the root? What is the definition? Can you use it in a sentence? Are there any alternate pronunciations? When they start cycling back through them, nervously grabbing at their pant legs, you can feel their dread. “l-i-t-h-o-t-r-a-t-y,” she says. And she’s dinged.

(VIDEOS: Top 10 Spelling Bee Freakouts)

This seems perhaps the cruelest part, that the sound for elimination is a pleasant little ring that might normally mean your cookies are ready to eat but instead means that your long journey, your hours of studying etymology, your sacrifice of goofing off for discipline, has not brought you where you hoped it would. And Sunny isn’t the last to hear that deceptively pleasant ring. Amidst those who make it through the gauntlet, more misspell their words and face the sound with a sigh or gasp, leaving the stage with a fresh regret.

The competition is interrupted by videos—biographies of some of the kids, montages of past winners, and messages of good luck. At one point, Cameron Diaz comes on and gives what is supposed to be a funny little quip. Look to that kid on your right, she says. Is he smarter than you? I bet he is. See that other kid? She was studying for three hours while you were out riding your bike. Brace yourself, she ends, because there can only be one winner, but perhaps that person is you. This message is met with disbelief and not a chuckle in the crowd, because these must be the questions kids and parents ask themselves, wondering and worrying if a hyper-competitive, intellectual pursuit is the best way for that fleeting bit of youth to be spent.

When the kids get the words right, they come back to high fives and fist-bumps from their peers—support that really pulls on the heartstrings. During commercial breaks, they congregate in groups and chat, finding, one imagines, more camaraderie than they feel in their daily lives, sympathizing about what kinds of words are the hardest. “Oh, the ones I hate the most are Dutch,” a young girl says to another. By the end of Round 4, there are 35 spellers left. The ones who survive the rest of the afternoon go on the finals tonight. The others, perhaps surrounded by fresh friends, will be left to watch and try their minds again next year.

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