I don't think there's a TV-watching soul in America who doesn't love the Scripps National Spelling Bee. It cuts across boundaries and appeals to the frightened child in all of us — that petrified little tyke who remembers the drama and heartbreak and occasional awkward triumph of life in the early days. Who wouldn't want to see that played out under the bright lights, at a safe but still excruciating remove? (Get off your high horse, people who care about the mental well being of fragile children!) It's one of the hardest events to watch, like a real-life Hunger Games, but it's damn near impossible to look away.
I couldn't have been more thrilled when I got the green light to write a retro blog of this year's bee. I watched the semifinals in the afternoon, when 50 spellers were whittled to a mere nine, studying the players, learning their tics, and trying to discern the broader patterns of the bee. Here are two important lessons for future generations:
1. Don't be funny. Seriously, don't ever be funny. It shows weakness, and spelling is a rigorous sport that will eat you alive. Time after time, we saw spellers go down after they tried to get cute. Also, it's kind of annoying.
There was Sumaita Mulk, who got the word quatuor from official pronouncer Dr. Jacques Bailly and immediately said "bless you." As though he'd sneezed. Did she get a few sympathy chuckles? Sure, but it was clear she was saving that one up, and the lack of focus led to a swift elimination. Then there was the kid who asked to buy a vowel. Obvious joke, kid! This is the big time! Get the hell off my stage!
2. Being normal is a liability. Not a deal-breaker, mind you, but it's not a great omen. There were a number of kids throughout the bee who you wouldn't immediately look at and think, spelling bee contestant, and those kids dropped like flies. There was Mark De Los Santos, the tall, athletic-looking dude from Arlington, Texas. Lot of spelling talent, but he got sidelined by himation. And Vismaya Kharkar, who was a little too put-together. She was probably the most popular speller, and she nearly made the finals. But when she missed pissaladiere at the end of the semis, the reason was clear: She was too well-adjusted for the upper echelons. You gotta be off-kilter to make it in this business, kid.
Before we start the retro blog, let's meet the nine finalists.