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.



People Like Us: How I Learned to Work the Streets

Welcome back to People Like Us! Today, we’re featuring Eva Gross, or as she also likes to go by, E.W. Gross. Eva and I met when we were forced to be roommates while studying abroad in the Netherlands. Turns out that whoever is in charge of assigning roommates should also be matchmakers, because we became instant friends, and have been BFFs ever since!

jumpin in front of dunder mifflin

While she majored in Writing, Literature and Publishing in college, Eva’s had a slew of unique jobs – from development associate at a legal center, a baker for thousands at a camp in Colorado, and a writer for a web series. And now she’s gracing us with her presence on Cookies + Sangria, sharing a fantastic story about working on a food truck in Los Angeles.

Follow Eva on her official blog or on our joint jumping picture tumblr – Jumpin’ Jams.


I’m a writer at heart and a baker by profession, which is a weird but fortuitous combination, as I’ve conveniently insulated myself from ever being a truly starving artist. Literally or metaphorically.

When I moved to Los Angeles in the fall to pursue a writing career, I naturally thought I could bake to pay the bills while I tried to trick important people into reading my screenplay (as I’ve been told is the way to fame).

Like many these days, I went through a long stretch of unemployment. I turned down a few jobs I maybe should have taken, including a graveyard shift baking job, and was at a point of sheer desperation when I stumbled upon an interesting Craigslist ad. It was for a pizza maker, experience with dough preferable. It wasn’t ideal but I was intrigued. Ok, their website was really cool. I judged the book buy it’s social media cover.

So I replied to the ad. We set up an interview with a small but important caveat: I was to meet the truck in a parking lot. TBD. I met them after the lunch rush in a company’s parking lot in Santa Monica. I had to pass a security guard who must have thought I was attempting some sort of heist when I couldn’t answer his simple question of where my interview was taking place.

Before long I found myself aboard The Urban Oven, a chalkboard clad gourmet pizza truck roaming the streets of Los Angeles in search of the perfect lunch crowd. On my first day we met along a stretch of street in front of the Variety building of Mid-Wilshire along with six or seven other food trucks. I was given a tour, which was quick for obvious reasons as there wasn’t more than seventeen feet worth of space to explain. I was also given the rundown on food truck culture.

And this is where it gets really interesting.

Turns out there is a tenuous bond between food truckers as both competition and brethren.

Precedent allows for a barter system called the “food swap,” an exchange of meals in good faith. I ate many a Vietnamese fusion sandwich, Bahn Mi and giant, chocolate-coated ice cream ball in payment for our pizza of the day.

My first day on the job I was also informed that more competitive trucks, in the eternal struggle for parking, would actually attempt to “nudge” another truck out of the way. Or at least just a tinsy bit forward so their own tail wasn’t in the red.

Then, of course, there’s life on board the actual truck. Things can get a little hectic when your work area is roughly the size of your own personal space. I was hit in the head with a pizza peel on more than one occasion. When it gets busy, pizza and people fly, bump and jostle each other in a commotion that from the outside can look a bit insane. It just somehow works.

Which is, of course, the basis of the food truck craze in general. It just works. The owners of these trucks risk their livelihood daily on location, parking and menu choices. They are in the unique position to serve the homeless and Jason Bateman alike. These passionate people are what make the food truck phenomenon irresistible. As Scott, the owner of The Urban Oven, says often “It’s the American dream in action.” I would add it’s the American dream reinvented, moving forward and sometimes even defying traffic.

People Like Us: valerie frizzle: woman, teacher, icon

Welcome to the inaugural post for our People Like Us series. It’s a way for us to introduce and share with y’all our super talented friends and their super awesome writing. Basically, we’re pimping out our peeps. Deal.

Kicking the series off is a post from my dear friend Brian. Although we went to the same college, we bonded while working together for a theater in Boston. I’ve watched him start off as a mere concessions worker, then as a box office associate, onto making it like a bo$$ as the Box Office & Front of House Manager, and finally he’s moved away from the annoying patrons and into the back office where the important people sit as a Marketing and Development Associate. What I’m trying to say is that I taught him everything he knows. 

me and b bein fancy

However, I cannot take credit for his excellent storytelling skills (his degree from Emerson, natural talent, and mom Bonnie is to thank). Enjoy this entertaining and frightening true explanation of why Ms. Frizzle is his life inspiration.

And if you like what you read, follow his WordPress blog here: A Mighty Fine Life. If you like Tumblin’, follow him here: Tumblr. If you enjoy children & young adult lit reviews (especially animorphs re-reads including graphics made on MS Paint), follow him here: The View From Sunday.


I have been doing a fair amount of thinking lately about the people I’ve looked up to in my day – people I’ve considered exemplars in their field, people I want to emulate, people who’s work has had a lasting, life-long impact on me. And the answer to that question has always surprised me, has always evaded me, because as I’ve said, I’ve never really known what I wanted to be when I grew up. When I was a kid, I hopped around from answer to answer – writer, scientist, hairdresser, teacher. And none of them stuck. I loved books and movies, I loved playing, and I loved people; that’s all I really knew about myself, and I wasn’t sure if a career as a professional storyteller and player, who maybe sometimes taught people things, was possible.

But you know who managed to accomplish all that and more?

Valerie. Mother-effing. Frizzle.

Ms. Frizzle, Perfect Person

That’s right. And you know it in your heart of hearts that I am right because this woman was the teacher – nay, the human being – we all dreamed of having in our lives. This woman is the be-all end-all of scientific learning of our generation, is admired by all the people everywhere, is the greatest teacher known to mankind, and I will punch you right in the nose if you say otherwise.

“Brian, you’re a little out of control here. What’s so great about her?”

Well first of all, don’t talk to me in that tone of voice. Who do you think you are? Are you better than Ms. Frizzle? No.

Second of all,  here are my top six reasons Ms. Frizzle is a badass and a teacher I want to be when I grow up.

1) Ms. Frizzle Owns A Magic Vehicle

Hello?! This much should be obvious. Does your car turn into a plane and a train and a submarine and a time machine and a rocketship and a ladybug and a triceratops and a planet and also shrink and also have the ability to turn you into a fish or frog or a BEAM OF LIGHT?????? IS YOUR CAR ALIVE AND DOES IT HAVE EYES????? No. No, I did not think so.

The eponymous Magic School Bus enabled Val to take her kids to infinity and beyond. It was an invaluable teaching tool, and a resource that any teacher would kill for. Sure, not everyone has the funding for this, but let’s take the bus as a metaphor for creativity in education. It’s like the old writing adage: show, not tell. The bus was simply The Friz’s way of bringing that kind of creative, hands-on learning to her classroom. Non-cartoon educators need to go about it a different way, but it is still a principle that we ought to listen to, right?


OK, also it helped that the bus was sentient and had its own thoughts and opinions. Which, okay, you could argue that taking a bunch of kids for a ride inside something alive every single day is sort of messed up. But the bus and the Friz also seemed to be buddies – this was no servant/master relationship; Ms. Frizzle cared when the bus was sick/needed repairs, and referred to it as an old friend. You have to wonder if she was the one who built it. This would likely mean that she is either a master mechanic – which I’d argue against, since in the episode about bones and muscles they took the bus in for a repair with R.U Humerus – or some kind of wizard. You be the judge.

2) Ms. Frizzle Let Her Students Learn By Doing

The kind of dynamic, experience-based learning her class did on a day-to-day basis is simply staggering. She allowed them to explore who they are as people, and brought them up close and personal to the things they were studying. Ms. Frizzle understood that the words on the page were not enough. And yet, she had clear objectives in mind for every lesson: “students will understand the basic types of bridges and how they work;” “students will have a clear understanding of the scientific method;” etc etc.

Her lessons weren’t a fly by night operation – they were well planned out and demonstrated a lot of thinking on the Friz’s part. In fact, you could argue that she worked backwards from her goal until she found the right kind of lesson. Often, the lesson would present itself in an organic way: Ralphie is sick, let’s figure out why. Or, Dorothy Ann became petrified of asteroids, presumably after watching Armageddon and crying about Bruce Willis (she just seems like the type, y’know?) – and Ms. Frizzle would jump in from there and guide the students in the most hands-off way possible. She had the tools and the kids had the experience. She dropped them into the thick of things and let them fend for themselves, be they playing a frictionless baseball game or turning into animals and trying to live on the streets of a city.

Sure, Ms. Frizzle’s methods were peculiar but they allowed for students to – as the Friz might say – get messy. It’s sort of implicit that they are never in any real danger: she never panics, not once, and it is demonstrated time and time again that she has her students best interests at heart. She taught real science – without any pretense or ulterior motive. It was all about the learning and all about using that learning to make her students be better, more observant people. She let them take chances, and that really paid off.

3) Ms. Frizzle Was Light Years Ahead Of Her Time, Fashion-Wise

Ms. Frizzle, 1995

Nicki Minaj, 2010

4) Ms. Frizzle Didn’t Do Any Kind Of Handholding

On the contrary! “Make Mistakes” was part of her catchphrase! Making mistakes means you’re working hard, and working hard means eventually you’ll achieve something. It’s not about being perfect, just about taking chances and allowing yourself to not succeed sometimes. Once you forget about being self-conscious, that’s when the real work is able to begin. Ms. Frizzle understands that – often, one of her students will be comically mistaken about something, and rather than saying, “Carlos you are a moron, that sound machine sounds awful and defies the basic principles of sound design,” she let him try and try until he got it right.

I mean, the fact that she took him to a magical sound mansion didn’t hurt. But that’s exactly the thing: it wasn’t, “Carlos, you’re wrong.” That would defeat his spirit and probably scar him for life. Instead, she presented him with the tools he’d need, provided a structure for using those tools – remember when she yodeled? – and answered his questions when he had them.

That, too, was what was so great about the Friz. She posed questions to her students right back at them, even if sometimes they didn’t realize they were being asked. Like that time she stranded herself on Pluto and left it to the kids to operate the bus and find her – through learning about the rest of the planets, that is. Mind you, this is back when Pluto was a planet so this was sort of a big deal.

5) Ms. Frizzle Was Popular With The Kids

Okay, this is superficial, but who doesn’t want to be the teacher everyone wants to have? It warms your teacher heart to hear an older kid nod knowingly and say, “I had the Friz’s class last year.” Also, they baked her a birthday cake! How much love does that show? Baking someone a cake is something you only do for someone you love. Have you ever baked a cake for your worst enemy? No. (Once, my friend Joa had someone bake her a cake out of love only she didn’t like him at all so it was an unrequited love cake, but still there was love in the batter!) The kids also bought Ms. Frizzle a cocoa tree one time – I think for Earth Day? WHO BUYS THEIR TEACHER AN EARTH DAY PRESENT?? A group of kids who really freakin liked their teacher, that’s who.

She was a well-liked and well-respected person in the school community and in the outside world – she had friends in the strangest of places.

Also, she was voiced by Lily Tomlin and her cousin was Dolly Parton. So that’s popularity points right thurr.

6) Ms. Frizzle Loved All Her Students Equally, Even The Terrible Ones


She was so respectful of each and every one of her kids and allowed them to learn at their own pace, in their own way. Some teachers would have looked at Arnold and said, “You know what? MAYBE YOU SHOULD JUST STAY HOME TOMORROW IF YOU’RE GOING TO COMPLAIN ABOUT LEARNING EVERY SINGLE FREAKING DAY. WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU ARE IN SCHOOL FOR, YOU SNOTTY GINGER.” Some teachers would have taken in Cousin Janet’s terrible ‘tude and promptly jettisoned her into space for being such an uptight crotchety little malcontent who nothing was ever good enough for.

Not the Friz.

Instead, she coaxed everyone out of their shells in a way that was fair and kind. She recognized that some kids were persnickety and dealt with that – sometimes by throwing them in a swamp, but there was learning to be had. And they soresponded to that. They may have complained every once in awhile, but they took that respect and faith that she had in them and ran with it, and became better students for it.

So there it is, folks. Fictional she may be, but Ms. Frizzle represents everything I want to bring to my career (?!?) as an educator, whatever trajectory that career might take. Because at the end of the day, the Friz taught us that teaching is more than books: it’s creativity and passion and laughter and caring about what you do and who you’re doing it for and thinking so far outside the box that the box becomes  a non-entity. I can’t wait to try it out for myself.

Seatbelts, everyone.