For an academic contest pitting young spellers against the dictionary, the Scripps National Spelling Bee has taken on the intensity of the fiercest athletic events. Feeling the warmth of television lights — not to mention nerves and distractions — all while sports commentators are analyzing your "style" and approach is something only a select club of young word-nerdy Americans gets to experience. How does that early experience affect these mostly middle-school-aged kids later in life?
The pressure of having to spell onstage before other competitors, nervous parents and a wider audience during those awkward formative years still sends a chill up the spine of Karla Miller, who competed in the national bees of 1984, 1985 and 1986. Her best finish was 31st, when she went out on the word "dashiki."
"It was a very intense experience. I had never been through something like that," Miller says. "You're on a stage in front of people, and now you're on TV and the Twitterati, and all these people watching you, waiting for you to make a mistake." Even today, Miller gets too anxious to watch the bee on television. She says she'll never forget the sound of getting a word wrong: the "ding" of a bell.
"I can't handle it," she says. "When I see it on the news, I see the clips and have to turn away because it stresses me out too much."
It's been nearly 30 years since Miller's first bee, and the stakes have only gotten higher. Cash and prizes total more than $60,000. ESPN is broadcasting not just the final rounds but the semifinals on its ESPN 2 and ESPN 3 channels.
She has a little residual spelling stress, but Miller, who today is a writer and editor, says on balance, her early experiences were positive. They helped her with confidence, poise and putting her on track to a career involving language.
Former spellers tend to lead successful professional lives, says James Maguire, who tracked years of national spellers for his book, American Bee: The National Spelling Bee and the Culture of Word Nerds. "Whatever the menu of things they're going to do, that skill of single-minded focus is going to help them. Not only can they do that — they can do it under pressure."
Maguire says almost all the former spelling bee kids wind up winning "at life," though not necessarily with careers working with words. More than half a dozen former champs from the past two decades excelled in math and science and went on to become physicians.
Other Brainy Pursuits
Srinivas Ayyagari, 32, was 14 years old when he finished third — for the second time — in the national bee of 1994. That was the first year ESPN covered it.
"The lights were incredibly bright and that sort of changed the dynamic about it," Ayyagari says. "Seeing someone from ESPN commenting on your style and strategy was bizarre and weird. But it's the closest I'll ever come to being an athlete."
Not content to stop with just one brainy pursuit, Ayyagari went on to Harvard for college, Penn for law school and Jeopardy! for a $27,400 win. "This will be a better highlight for you," Alex Trebek told Ayyagari after he won.
Other former spelling champs have also gone on to conquer quiz games and shows. Ned Andrews, the 1994 champ who wrote a book of spelling bee advice called The Champion's Guide to Success in Spelling Bees, still loves a mental challenge. When NPR contacted him to discuss his bee experience, he revealed he's "a longtime regular entrant" in the Weekend Edition Sunday puzzle. "Big surprise, I know," he writes.
Today, Ayyagari is searching for full-time work in Washington, D.C. It's one of the most competitive markets for lawyers, but because of his early experiences, he says he's used to tough competition.
"Being a lawyer elsewhere could be a smoother experience, but there's something there that got lit at a very young age about pushing myself against the best and feeling like I had a reason to do that," Ayyagari says.
Lessons About Effort And Luck
Two decades since his peak spelling years, Ayyagari says he's proud of the effort he put into his early successes.
"There are going to be factors that you can't account for," he says. "Whether it's words you don't know or something else. You have to just try your best and the factors you can't account for are something you're going to have to face as best you can. That effort is something that I will always stand behind."
1988 champion Raga Ramachandran told a television interviewer after she won at age 13 that "whatever I do, I want to be the foremost in it." Her teenage prediction was spot-on. Today, she's a surgical pathologist at the University of California, San Francisco. She remembers every detail of her spelling bee victory for correctly spelling the word "elegiacal." But 25 years later, the champ says her day-to-day life isn't different because of her big win.
"I think some potential spellers and their families may have this idea that winning the national spelling bee is an automatic passport to success, and I really don't think that's true," said Ramachandran. In spelling and in life, "I know a lot of it is luck of the draw. ... If I had gotten a different word, if I had been spelling in a slightly different order, I might very well not have won."
"There are probably 30 or 40 kids who go to bee who have a very realistic chance of winning and I think for them, it really is heartbreaking to not win," Maguire says. "But for all of them to go there and to compete is a good experience, it's a character-building experience."
Regardless of where they placed, the former spellers say they came away with performance poise, an appreciation of hard work and a love of language. Miller is still working with words today — writing the weekly work advice column for The Washington Post Magazine. And every so often, she's reminded of her days as a competitive speller.
"To this day when I hear that bell I get that frisson — that little shiver. When I hear that bell I'm thinking, oh no, I failed at something. And then I realize, no, somebody's order has come up."
Decades later, they've each won a valuable prize — perspective.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel. This week, the stakes are high for some of the best competitive spellers as they take part in the Scripts National Spelling Bee. ESPN broadcasts the contest live with tens of thousands of dollars in cash and prizes and millions of people tuning in. For the students in the competition, it's an experience they won't forget. NPR's Elise Hu tracked down some former top spellers and she sent this report.
ELISE HU, BYLINE: They come from all over the country.
KARLA MILLER: And I was just this girl living on a farm. My only coach was my mom.
HU: And like Karla Miller, they come prepared.
MILLER: We spent hours drilling on words. It was just the two of us and the spelling bee book and a huge dictionary.
HU: The kids who qualify for the national bee are as young as six, but no older than 14. Karla Miller was 11 in 1984 when she first made it to nationals, a big enough deal to get a profile on the local news.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: How do you think you're going to do at nationals?
MILLER: I'm not sure. I may do good. I may do bad. It's not really how I do, it's how terribly the others do.
HU: The others didn't do too terribly, out-spelling Karla in the fourth round.
MILLER: And if you spelled your word incorrectly, there would be this moment of silence and then you'd hear ding and then it was like this mile-long walk to get to the end of the stage.
HU: Now, nearly three decades later, Karla's back inside the old ballroom of Washington's Capitol Hilton for the first time since she last competed.
MILLER: I remember the echo, that big, cavernous echo.
HU: The word she missed that year, matriculate.
MILLER: I can spell it now, M-A-T-R-I-C-U-L-A-T-E.
HU: In the same cavernous ballroom in 1988, then 13-year-old Raga Ramachandran found herself among the last two spellers standing. It's been 25 years, but she remembers every detail.
RAGA RAMACHANDRAN: So I spelled (unintelligible) correctly, but it's like tennis where you have to then win an additional point in order to win the whole thing. Then, the pronouncer, he gave me the word elegiacal.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Elegiacal. Elegiacal.
RAMACHANDRAN: I would see the word in my mind. Elegiacal. And then I would spell it. E-L-E-G-I-A-C-A-L. Elegiacal. It was just pandemonium. They have this beautiful trophy that's ready to go and I got to hoist this loving cup trophy. It's just so exciting. I'm getting shivers thinking about it.
HU: It's a moment hundreds of national qualifiers dream of. Srinivas Ayyagari, like many top spellers, credits his family for his early success, especially his mom.
SRINIVAS AYYAGARI: We worked together. We were definitely like a team because I think, you know, it's true of a lot of immigrant children, you know, the parents bring them along, but they also bring along the parents in America, too.
HU: Ayyagari never got to hoist the winner's trophy, but he came so close, finishing in third place at nationals twice, once in 1992, again in 1994.
AYYAGARI: That was first year ESPN covered it and the lights were incredibly bright and it sort of changed the dynamic up there in terms of just atmosphere.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yes, the head goes down and he was searching when he asked for pelican and it was so...
AYYAGARI: And seeing, like, somebody from ESPN commenting on your style and strategy was bizarre and weird, so it's the closest I'll ever get to being, you know, an athlete.
HU: Not content to stop with just one brainy pursuit, Ayyagari went on to Harvard for college, Penn for law school and Jeopardy for the win.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW)
ALEX TREBEK: Srinivas, $27,400, third place in the spelling bee, first place on Jeopardy today. Yes, this will be a better highlight for you.
HU: He's taken contract jobs on and off for the last year, but today, Ayyagari is searching for full-time work in Washington. It's one of the most competitive markets for lawyers. But because of his early experiences, he's used to the tough competition.
AYYAGARI: There's something there that got lit at a very young age about pushing myself against the best and feeling like I had a reason to do that.
HU: The 1988 champ, Ramachandran, is a pathologist at UC San Francisco. More than two decades since spelling on stage, she says the bee taught important lessons about effort and luck.
RAMACHANDRAN: If I had gotten a different word, if I had been spelling in a slightly different order, I might very well not have won.
HU: Regardless of where they placed, the former spellers say they came away with performance poise and appreciation of hard work and a love of language. Karla Miller is still working with words today, writing the weekly work advice column for the Washington Post magazine. And every so often, she's reminded of her days as a competitive speller.
MILLER: To this day when I hear that bell, again, I get that little frisson, the little shiver, when I hear that bell and thinking, oh, I failed at something. And then I realize, no, somebody's order has come up.
HU: Decades later, they've each won a valuable prize, perspective. Elise Hu, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.