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Even Child Geniuses Need to Nap

The 2017 Scripps National Spelling Bee featured an unforgettable showdown between two brilliant finalists — and celebrated all the joy and innocence that comes with kids chasing after their dreams

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

Sometime during Round 14 of Thursday night’s tiebreaker, 6-year-old Edith Fuller decided to go to sleep.

By then, the finals of the 2017 Scripps National Spelling Bee were running an hour past their scheduled end time and beginning to woo spectators from the evening’s other finals showdown, the Golden State Warriors’ 113–91 blowout win over the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 1 of their NBA championship rematch. Onstage at the just-outside-of-D.C.-limits Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center, 12-year-old Ananya Vinay and 14-year-old Rohan Rajeev were colliding with two hard realities: first, that both were extremely good at finding silent P’s and detecting inexplicable double T’s in words derived from Italian; and second, that organizers of the 90th edition of the Bee were desperate that the event avoid ending in a tie.

Slowly, Ananya and Rohan’s other competitors had fallen. As the finals wore on, eliminations — especially that of four-time Bee contestant and presumed favorite Tejas, who missed the third “s” in saussurite — were met with groans and then standing ovations from the audience. Shourav made the final four and delivered the night’s most memorable moment before he, too, was sent to a tissue-, cookie-, and soothing-grown-up-equipped couch at stage right:

But Ananya and Rohan wouldn’t miss. As round after round of their head-to-head tiebreaker finished in perfection — Rohan raised Ananya’s “gargouillade” with “siddur;” Ananya followed “barasingha” with “konditorei” — the runner-up section, the 20-odd finalists who were knocked out earlier in the day but earned places on the side of the stage for the finale all the same, began to stir. Kids whispered spellings into each other’s ears and wrote out letters on their palms. They nodded approvingly with each correct letter and clapped heartily as each word was spelled right — often before the judges announced that it had been.

Edith, meanwhile, the youngest contestant in Bee history and the week’s runaway media darling, had concluded her bid in the preliminary round, spelling “nyctinasty” and “tapas” correctly but failing to accrue enough points to make the finals. So, yawning, she did something more typical of kindergartners: She laid her head in her mother’s lap and napped.

Ten minutes later, as confetti covered the carpet, Ananya and her family posed for pictures with the trophy, and Rohan tried to explain to a sea of grown-ups where, exactly, his spelling of “marram” — a perennial shrub of southern Africa that is deadly poisonous to livestock — went wrong, Edith stood on her chair in the audience, hair a little mussed but marker ready as she began signing autographs.

The Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center, home to the Bee since 2011, is big. So big. It is big enough that when you ask how to get to the ballroom you will be asked in return, Which one?; so big that the inner atrium boasts a full-scale farmhouse and “Colonial-era mercantile shop,” a sort of Jamestown-by-Dubai. There are a minimum of three floors that could plausibly be described as “ground level,” each full of plushly carpeted halls with doors and more doors and doors beyond those, some with signs indicating LUNCHEON and LECTURE but most that are unmarked. Open the wrong door, and you might be presented with a sales award or inducted into a board of governors or asked to lead a PowerPoint presentation.

Ananya Vinay (AP Images)
Ananya Vinay (AP Images)

Down the hall from the Bee, a division of the World Bank kicks off a retreat while congregants of the Ebenezer A.M.E. Church gather for the 33rd annual Women’s Spiritual Retreat & Restoration Conference; people with acronym lanyards and acronym T-shirts scuttle to and fro, murmuring about the afternoon session. The overwhelming sense is that the nationally televised, voice-crack-inducing, semi-militarized child-rearing extravaganza is perhaps not even among the top five events taking place at the convention center this week.

The parents are the only sign that something unusual is happening. They are unmistakably parental: expeditious, brows furrowed, and hand-sanitizer-equipped. They hurry sandwiches to hands and smaller children to bathrooms and try out different doors, glowering into other people’s PowerPoints. They wear name tags. They have trained for this.

On the whole, though, the atmosphere at the National Spelling Bee is markedly relaxed. Most in attendance hang back. Competitors, for the most part newly acquainted and bonding in the palpably nervous way that middle schoolers do, giggle together. Younger siblings toddle. People laugh. In lieu of the manic cramming and verge-of-tears scolding portrayed in many depictions of this contest, there is the distinct air of a field trip, a giddy almost-out-for-summer vibe that reflects, perhaps, the fact that most of the contestants almost are. Bee organizers shun the idea that parents might push their children into competing: Achieving spelling mastery on this level requires so much time and effort that there’s no way it could be done without some desire on the part of the kids.

Still, when asked to submit an official biography to the tournament, 18 of the 291 qualifiers — who by rule must not have passed beyond the eighth grade before February 1 of this year — mentioned Ivy League ambitions, and nearly three dozen described their hopes of one day becoming doctors. On the other hand: 24 mentioned Harry Potter, one a passion for dubstep, and another a pet millipede named Washington. There is the simple likelihood that for a prepubescent human being to learn to spell the word “phthisiology,” some quantity of video-game-playing and sleepovers was probably sacrificed. And then there’s the fact that, freed finally from Bee duties, a cohort of contestants spent the early morning hours of Friday racing up and down the convention center’s stairs.

In each of the last three Scripps National Spelling Bee finals, a pair of contestants has been deemed evenly matched. In 2016, Jairam and Nihar were named cochampions; in 2015, it was Vanya and Gokul; in 2014, Ansun and Sriram. The words they failed to best each other with might best be described as cartoonishly obscure: Feldenkrais, gesellschaft, scherenschnitte, stichomythia, feuilleton, knaidel. (Watching the early rounds of the Bee, you might be lured into thinking you could hold your own on the stage. This is incorrect.)

Finishing as the one of the two best preteen spellers of the English language never seemed to matter to the contestants nor their families, but for the casual viewer — which let’s go ahead and accept that a substantial majority of National Spelling Bee viewers are — being denied one true victor was maybe a little less than totally satisfying. The Bee organizers took this to heart, instituting a first-ever tiebreaker test this year with the stated goal of busting up potential cowinners. The final two competitors would be allowed to go 25 rounds head to head. If both spelled all of those words correctly, their scores on a written test administered just before they walked on stage would be used to break the tie — unless their scores on that test were equal, too, in which case they would become the Bee’s fourth consecutive cochampions. In his introduction to ESPN’s Thursday-night broadcast of the event, cohost Kevin Negandhi all but shuddered when his partner mentioned the diminishingly likely, but still technically possible, chance of a two- or even three-way tie. “Our fingers are crossed,” he said. “We’ll see how this plays out on the big stage.”

A secondary wish among viewers at home: that the kids do something … interesting. Which is not to say that asking for arcane linguistic roots and definitions isn’t interesting, but it can be hard to dispute the TV magic of moments like last year’s cochamps’ showy gamesmanship:

And when things go wrong at the Bee, they have a way of going very, very wrong, as happened to poor Emily early in a 2017 preliminary round:

Emily joins a pantheon of kids who had the temerity to act, well, like slightly nervous kids in the midst of their brain-flexing. This group also includes 2004’s illustrious Akshay, who finished as runner-up:

It does not include Ananya and Rohan, who repeatedly walked to the microphone, stared at pronouncer Dr. Jacques Bailly, and coolly nailed words like gargouillade, Bandkeramik, and heiligenschein, none of which seem like even remotely plausible contributions to the English language.

In the end, a tie was narrowly avoided: Ananya and Rohan went head to head for 21 rounds before Rohan missed a word; Ananya then spelled two more, gifblaar and marocain, correctly to earn the crown. After she won, her father charged onstage and wrapped her in a bear hug. She’d spend much of the rest of the night with his arm around her shoulders, while in the risers, the remaining eliminated contestants grabbed wildly for pieces of confetti.