Meet Speller 115: Inside The Scripps National Spelling Bee with ‘Spellebrity’ Amber Born

Happy Bee Day! Every year we are blown away by the amazing kids in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, and in 2014 a (hilarious) Bee contestant buzzed in to let us know what the Bee is really like. Read on below to get the behind-the-scenes scoop, then tune in to ESPN tonight for the 2017 finals.

For some, Memorial Day is the unofficial start of summer; for others, the unofficial start of Bee Week. Yes, the Scripps National Spelling Bee is here again, or as I affectionately call it, Nerd Superbowl.

In case you’ve missed it, I love the Bee. Judging by the response to coverage on ESPN and NPR, and the popularity of Akeelah and the Bee, Bee Season, and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, I’m not the only one. I mean, for two days a major sports network is taken over by a celebration of words, languages, tenacity, and …. middle schoolers. Lots and lots of middle schoolers.

The kids are by far the best part of the Bee. They’ve already figured out the trick that many of the coolest adults take decades to discover: how to find a field that interests them, apply themselves – without apology – to becoming the best, and find other people who share their interests. While I have a lot of admiration for any kid who can work so hard and retain so much information, last year we especially loved Amber Born. In case you’ve forgotten, she was the teenaged comedy fan who brought a little levity to the proceedings and proved that smart doesn’t have to mean serious.

Needless to say, we are elated to present a post from Amber herself. Ever wanted to know what it’s really like to compete at the Bee? Or what the 2013 contestants thought of that weird Matilda: The Musical promotional tie-in? She has your answers right here!

Amber, spelling a word that you can’t spell. I mean, probably.


Hi! My name is Amber Born. You may know me from my famous Twitter account (I recently hit 13 followers), but maybe it’s more likely that you saw me on ESPN last year, when I was in the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Anyway, I think ESPN doesn’t necessarily do a good job of portraying how the National Spelling Bee looks to spellers on the inside, so I figured I’d answer some of the more frequently asked questions that people have asked me about the spelling bee.

But you’re normal! I thought spellers were all nerdy and socially awkward losers who do nothing but spell?

My answer: Okay, some of us (who shall remain nameless) are. But in general, spellers are pretty normal people who just happen to be devoting a zillion hours of their lives to learning to spell the names of African antelopes and German philosophies. Seriously, though, if you look at the biographies of the spellers on the Bee website, you’ll see that the interests range from sports to art to comedy writing.

Did you see this thing online media where they made fun of the Bee and all the spellers?

My answer: Probably. I would like to say that pretty much every single speller looks themselves up online during or after the Bee is over, so it would be nice if the internet could keep its crueler comments about the spellers to itself (that applies to a lot of things, actually). Spellers work really hard, and you know nothing about them in real life, so you should just shut up. Just so you know, I’m not talking about Cookies + Sangria or the blogs that treat spellers like the awesome spellebrities that they generally are. I’m referring to the weird people who make racist and/or anti-nerd jokes and have no conscience about the fact that they’re dissing twelve year olds online, which is pretty much the stupidest thing you could do, along with putting paper clips in electrical outlets and thinking The Colbert Report is serious. Anyway, my point is this: spellers are cool. They have friends. They may be nerds, but they also have a lot of other stuff going on.

Is everyone really competitive? Are you happy when people get eliminated?

My answer: Anyone who asks this hasn’t watched the Bee for more than two minutes, because if they had, they’d note that every time a kid gets a word right, they are met with a dozen high-fives (or less, if they’re far into the finals) as they make their way back to their seat. Almost all of the finalists get standing ovations upon elimination, though the first few sometimes don’t because everyone is too stunned at the elimination to stand up. Sure, people are competitive, but they aren’t trying to bring everyone else down, as far as I know. The Bee encourages friendship; everyone gets an autograph book when they get to National Harbor (where the Bee takes place), and it has pictures and information on everyone, so you can go up to someone, ask for their autograph, and leave two minutes later with a friend. There’s a barbecue the day before the actual spelling starts, and it’s a great time for everyone to hang out and meet like-minded people. If there’s any animosity at the barbecue, it’s because the snow cones ran out. Everyone is really supportive leading up to the finals and semifinals, because, regardless of how well you did, there’s always someone who made it farther (unless you win), and someone else who placed lower. In the 2013 Bee, ESPN made the somewhat strange decision to periodically run a clip involving Matilda the Musical that made the Bee seem very competitive and scary. Thankfully, the sound on stage is terrible, so none of the spellers could actually hear the video until they were offstage.

Do you just ask questions about the words just to show off? Does it help you at all?

My answer: Yes, it does help. Please Google “linguistics.”

What word did you get out on?

My answer: For me personally, it was “hallali” in 2013, but the vast majority of people aren’t eliminated on a single word; they don’t advance because they made too many mistakes on a computerized test. So if you’re a speller that got eliminated on the computer test, just pick the most esoteric word and tell everyone that it’s what you got out on.

So do you never spell anything wrong now? Does it bother you when other people misspell?

My answer: Yeah, mispellings bothur me.