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How a Spelling Bee Finalist Becomes a Superstar

In the face of the declining fortunes of local newspapers, the Scripps foundation tweaked its entry requirements and nearly doubled the field of National Spelling Bee contestants. Now, the kids who last the longest have more fans than ever before.

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All week long, Simone Kaplan wore bee-themed clothing. She had a yellow dress with embroidered bees and dangling bee earrings, black-and-white bees with a flouncy skirt, a slick bee button-down, and, at a barbecue for her fellow spellers, denim shorts printed with the little buzzing creatures. She appointed her mother as her stylist. “I’ve been scrubbing the internet since we left the bee last year,” Alana Kaplan explained earlier to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. “If there’s a bee on clothing, we own it.”

On Thursday, as Simone prepared for her second consecutive trip to the Scripps National Spelling Bee, and the 12-year-old’s first to the nationally televised finals, she donned a bright-blue dress covered in bees and the flats she’d been wearing all week: a bee on one, and a crown—for a queen bee, or a champion, or both—on the other.

But it was not to be. In what turned out to be a buzzsaw of a first round, Simone was given the word “carmagnole,” a type of French song and dance. She missed it, becoming one of seven finalists from the total pool of 16 to hear the dreaded bell ring on their first word of the night; the contest would go eight more rounds before 14-year-old Karthik Nemmani would correctly spell “koinonia” and be crowned the 2018 champion. But for now Simone found herself in the audience, sitting among her parents and looking shell-shocked.

Then, just as the weight of that defeat seemed like it might be too much, and Simone’s steely resolve seemed like it might be outdone by an understandable lip tremble, the bee went to a two-minute commercial break. And suddenly there were kids sprinting headlong down the aisle toward Simone. They were other competitors, ones whose tournaments had ended earlier in the week, a selection of this nation’s brightest elementary and middle school students. Now, at Simone’s side, they wanted some combination of three things: a high five (you were so great), a hug (you were soooo great), and (if it’s OK, you were so-so-so-so great, thankyousomuch) maybe her name signed in their commemorative bee books, the event’s de facto yearbook, in which the signature of a finalist is the ultimate achievement. For a second, Simone looked startled. And then she smiled, accepted the waiting hugs and high fives, and started to sign.

In the last hours before the finals began, boys in floppy bee lanyards raced up and down the National Harbor convention center halls. They had the vaunted position of being younger siblings, with all the attendant luxuries: the freedom of briefly becoming—at most—a secondary or tertiary concern for their parents and possessing blissful ignorance both of the Dreaded Schwa and when, precisely, to stop taking advantage of the bee-provided bins of Pepsi to avoid needing to pee onstage. The finalists themselves were more staid. “Are you excited?” one well-meaning grownup asked a finalist she spotted outside the prep room. Finding only silence in return, she demurred: “It’s OK to be a little nervous,” she said.

Across the hall in the media workroom, reporters hurriedly typed, splicing together quotes from children and parents and bee administrators, hoping that they managed to get quotes from the soon-to-be-crowned victor and maybe, just maybe, that their paper’s kid was the one who would make good.

Many of the contestants are in D.C. by virtue of their local news joint: The E.W. Scripps Company, which hosts the bee, owns dozens of regional papers and television affiliates, many of which in turn sponsor the community-level spelling bees that send their winners to the national competition. Those organizations in turn cover their local kids with intense devotion, dispatching reporters to National Harbor and tracking the progression of their designated wunderkind through the competition’s early stages.

For all publications, Scripps-owned or not, the annual journeys of local whiz kids is a source of substantial pride. “Area’s top speller prepares himself for national bee,” crowed Elyria, Ohio’s Chronicle-Telegram; “Victoria speller passes national bee’s first preliminary round,” announced the Victoria, Texas, Advocate. Last year, Edith Fuller, who at 6 years old was the youngest-ever competitor in the bee, won hearts, minds, and not a small amount of ink; when her run concluded (she watched the finals while snoozing in her mother’s lap in the audience), she was given a key to the city by the mayor of her hometown of Tulsa. At the 2017 bee, I witnessed a crew of radio correspondents crawl underneath a table to record, and then rerecord a couple of more times, a segment on their local speller, using a tablecloth as sound insulation.

This year is different, if only a little bit. Concerned that otherwise gifted spellers were being locked out of the bee by a quota system that allowed only first-place regional winners the opportunity to compete nationally, Scripps introduced a wild-card system called RSVBee. The program allows organizations like school districts to nominate spellers, and permits multiple entrants from the same area. The result of RSVBee was by far the largest pool of competitors in National Spelling Bee history: Some 515 students from eighth grade and below turned up this week to compete, up from 291 last year. The same-place rule change was occasionally taken very literally: Two different sets of twins arrived in D.C. to face off.

As the group of 16 finalists slowly narrowed—to nine after the first round, then six by Round 4—Karthik eventually found himself in familiar company: He faced both of his last two competitors, runner-up Naysa Modi and third-place finisher Abhijay Kodali, in their county regional bee early this spring, where he came in third to Naysa and Abhijay, who were co-winners. This, Karthik’s father explained afterward, was no coincidence: When Karthik was just 3 years old, his family moved to the Dallas area explicitly for its wealth of educational opportunities.

The fact that all three of this year’s top spellers came from the same place is a testament to the success of RSVBee, said Paige Kimble, executive director of the bee. “It’s just a fairness issue,” said Kimble. “In population-dense areas especially, it’s difficult for all the great ones to step through without a program like RSVBee.”

The shift is also, perhaps, a testament to the decline of regional newsroom budgets: The E.W. Scripps Company has transitioned from news company to amorphous “education” company in tandem with the transition—to use a nice word—of the news business model. Ten years ago, some 95 percent of spellers were sponsored by newspapers, according to Kimble, meaning they generally paid for local winners’ trips to D.C.; this year, that number was closer to 50 among those who did not compete through RSVBee.

This year’s bee saw an usually quick final round. Whereas the 2017 bee saw a marathon 21-round faceoff between eventual winner Ananya Vinay and runner-up Rohan Rajeev, Karthik was immediately able to seal his victory after Naysa misspelled “Bewusstseinslage.”

“I was expecting them to go back and forth,” Jacques Bailly, the bee’s longtime pronouncer and 1980 champion, said after the confetti fell. “And they would have—I know that Naysa knew Bewusstseinslage. She knew it. It’s so clear.”

As Karthik finished his last word, and was anointed with the bee’s final “correct” of the year, Naysa covered her face.

But then she stood, and suddenly she was surrounded by people, and all of them wanted hugs and high fives and signatures.