I’m sure that some who flipped past the Scripps National Spelling Bee on ESPN on Thursday night kept right on clicking when they saw a bunch of kids on stage participating in a boring spelling contest.
Well, I was one of those who stopped.
As a former spelling bee champ myself (I won the Elmore County Bee lots of years ago), I was interested. I realized the work these kids had put in to get on that stage that night. I realized there were days and nights of dedication to a singular goal that went in to being among the best kid spellers in the country.
And I soon found out that, were I in the spelling bee game today, there is no way that I could compete.
These kids were phenomenal.
When my television landed on the bee at about 9 p.m., there were some 15 or so spellers left. After two or three rounds, my wife and I each picked not so much our favorites, but who we thought would win.
We weren’t even close.
Eventually, our favorites and all the others with the exception of Rohan Rajeev, a 14-year-old from Edmond, Oklahoma and Ananya Vinay, a 12-year-old from Fresno, California were eliminated.
The championship round began. With words of championship-round difficulty. The two Indian-American children would go a maximum of 25 rounds with these words and, if both made it all the way through those rounds, the tie would be broken with some test they’d already taken.
We never found out anymore about the test.
Both of the final two spellers had obviously studied countless hours. Their spelling was dotted with smiles of recognition, at a word itself or at its origin. They had set their minds on a singular goal: to win the 2017 Scripps Spelling Bee. The discipline was beyond admirable.
After Rajeev misspelled “marram,” a word of Scandinavian origin defined as “a coarse perennial grass growing on sandy shores and dunes and having awnless flowers crowded into a long spikelike panicle,” Vinay had her opening.
All she had to do was to spell two consecutive words correctly and the championship would belong to her.
First, she was asked to spell “gifblaar,” which Webster defines as a perennial shrub of southern Africa which is deadly poisonous to stock. She asked her token questions about the word’s origin, it’s part of speech, asked the judge to use it in a sentence, but one got the feeling she knew it all along.
The pronouncer, Dr. Jacques Bailly, an associate professor of classics at the University of Vermont and the winner of the 1980 bee, then informed Vinay that if she spelled the next word correctly she would be declared the 2017 Scripps National Spelling Bee champion.
The next word Bailly spoke – Vinay’s word to spell – was “marocain.”
The slightest smile ever broke Vinay’s face and just as quickly disappeared. She hurried through a barrage of questions, barely waiting for Bailly to answer one before another came blasting out. She tugged at her dress, sneaked looks toward her Mom in the audience.
“Marocain,” Vinay finally said. “M-a-r-o-c-a-i-n. Marocain.”
“That is correct,” the judge said excitedly.
Here came the confetti.
Here came Vinay’s trophy, her parents and her brother, all seemingly more excited than she was.
She showed little emotion, but she was the champion.
It was almost as if she expected to win.
She had set her mind to a singular goal.
And she had achieved it.