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.

 

Advertisements

Spelling Superlatives: Everyone’s A Winner At The 2014 Scripps Bee

I fell down the televised Bee rabbit hole when I was in eighth grade, home with strep throat on the day of the finals. A few (ahem) years later, I was once again home, this time from work, and this this time with an improbably horrible ear infection (current feeling: that part of Godspell when Jesus caterwauls “Oh Go-ohhhd, I’m dy-y-ing!”) The Bee is the best sick day viewing ever: repetitive, soothing, and lengthy, which is great for when you’re so ill that you’re too apathetic to change the channel. Not to mention, there’s nothing more calming than the gentle monotone of Jacques Bailly, except perhaps for Jacques Bailly conversing with Terry Gross.

However, you don’t have to have an infectious disease to appreciate the Scripps National Spelling Bee. It seems like every year more and more people watch it, so I’m sure we have plenty of readers who appreciated these Spelling Bee Superlatives as much as I did. With these categories, almost everyone’s a winner!

Actual Winners: Sriram Hathwar and Ansun Sujoe

[But, REAL Actual Winners: All Of Us]

Every year when I watch the Bee, I wish there was a way for everyone to win. There isn’t. But TWO kids winning is pretty great, right? Watching the word list dwindle, I hoped against hope they’d both keep answering correctly. Maybe I’m wrong – I’ve never been a 14-year-old boy, after all – but for the kids, it seems like it would actually be more fun to win with somebody than by yourself.

And no, they do not have to split the $30K grand prize.

Best Dressed: Brayden Kelley

I mean. He was wearing a bespoke camo suit-jacket with rockabilly-styled lapels. Is it really even a question?

Best Vest: Ansun Sujoe

I’d say that any competition in which you stand to win $30,000 merits your first-string wardrobe. I think Ansun would say so, too.

Best Name: Caribbean Sea’Era Adams

Caribbean is a word I’ve never run across as a name before, so I’m going to guess this contestant got her love of words from her parents.

Farthest Traveled: Michaela Shari Bostrom; Tokyo, Japan

Michaela didn’t make the finals, so you may have missed this story: she has lived in Japan her whole life, which means that she is probably a better speller than you in at least two languages.

Best Accent: Tajaun Gibbison

Tajaun, a polite eighth grader making his first appearance at the Bee, hails from Jamaica.

Best Sample Sentence

This year, the Scripps folks made a concerted effort to incorporate some more humorous sentences. E.g.: “Pampootie is as uncomfortable to say in public as it is to wear in public.” But the funniest of all was probably the sentence Dr. Jacques Bailly didn’t get to finish. While reading feijoada, which is some kind of Brazilian bean dish,  Bailly began reading “Tabitha discovered that her milkshake brings all the boys to the yard,” and was summarily cut off. I am dying to know how that was possibly all going to come together.

Most Enthusiastic Speller: Jacob Williamson.

This kid squealed with glee when he got words right, and ran to the stage with the force of 10 Price Is Right contestants when he was announced as a finalist. It was fun to see a kid act like this was the most exciting moment of his life, because face it, it probably was. If you watched the Bee, you know that you really can’t categorize the spellers as one particular kind of kid. But if Central Casting had to come up with an enthusiastic Bee kid, Jacob would be it.

Best (Worst?) Peripeteia: Jacob Williamson, again.

Want to see the elation of victory turned, in a matter of seconds, into the agony of defeat? Yeah, me either – but I saw it anyway, when Jacob Williamson KNEW kabarogoya, until he … didn’t. My theory: he correctly remembered that it was an “easy one” – a word spelled almost phonetically – but, alas, forgot about that whole c/k thing.

Biggest Upset: Vanya Shivashankar

Vanya competed in the 2010, 2012, and 2013 finals. Her big sister, Kavya, was the 2009 champion. [For those of us who don’t think 2009 was that long ago: Kavya is off to college next year.] She appeared in almost every pre-recorded ESPN Bee promotion. The stars seemed to be aligned for Vanya to make the finals tonight – and possibly take home the big set of Merriam Websters- but it wasn’t to be. Blame it on the additional computerized tests.

Happiest Speller: Alia Abiad

She wasn’t over-the-top excited like Jacob, but wasn’t Alia just sunny? Abiad has only been spelling for a few years and advanced to 5th place last night.

Thing The Bee Maybe Needs To Work On: Makeup

Most of the kids looked great, but when they got to the interviews after being dinged out, some of the boys had telltale foundation lines around their necks. What worked under the harsh stage lights didn’t under the gentler interview lighting.

Worst Spoilers: The Scripps Twitter Feed

Am I the only one whose ESPN broadcast was about 25 seconds behind Twitter? Results were announced before the kid had even finished spelling.

Most Unnecessary ESPN Shot: The Bell

When a kid got dinged out, they used this weird camera angle where you were looking up at the bell ringer. It was almost like you WERE the bell. It was weird, and way too dramatic.

Most Composed: Kate Miller

What do you do when you are eliminated from a national competition? Probably give a really calm, collected interview in which you scrupulously avoid ending a sentence with a preposition, right? This is clearly a kid who knew when she was on camera.

Best Nails: Mary Horton

I kept wondering why I wanted to call Mary Horton “Mary Horton Mary Horton” until I realized I was thinking of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. Anyway. Cute nails, right?

Saddest Moment: Realizing That Almost Every One Of These Kids Was Born In The New Millenium

There was one 15-year-old, but most eighth graders – the oldest kids eligible to compete – are 13 or 14. A child born in 1999 would have turned 14 before January 1, so most of them would be in 9th grade now. Yikes.

 

 

Live Blog: Scripps National Spelling Bee

Good evening and welcome to our liveblog of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Or, as I like to call it, Nerd Superbowl. Speaking of the superbowl, this is the one time every year that many of us will be voluntarily tuning into ESPN, so everyone, give yourselves a few minutes to track down the channel. Keep refreshing the blog to catch our updates, and follow our live tweets on Twitter — @cookiessangria

  • Like homeschooled 5th graders and NPR fans everywhere, I’ve been waiting all year for this. Literally, this time — I read American Bee: The National Spelling Bee and The Culture Of Word Nerds right after last year’s bee, and was pretty bummed I’d have to wait 12 months to see it play out.
  • Remember the big bee news of 2012? The youngest speller ever, 6-year-old Lori Anne Madison competed. She got dinged out on “ingluvies.” Cute kid, but can’t spell ingluvies? What are you, a kindergartner?

    I honestly have tattoos older than her.

Ugh, who am I kidding. Even though she has a name from 1973 (a good thing, as Lori is 10,000 times better than Madycynne or McKaeighlah), this kid wasn’t even born until I was a few years into college. Lori isn’t here this year, but I don’t think we’ve seen the last of her. I sincerely hope that she’s being seven right now and constructing a blanket fort or making a village out of tissue boxes.

  • This year, the hot story is that the competitors have to take a vocab test. FINALLY. If there’s one problem with spelling bee kids, it’s that they’re dumb and lazy and don’t know enough about words. Thank God we’re finally weeding out those bozos!
  • The Bee begins with a kind of confusing Matilda The Musical tie-in. I can only guess that we’re trying to reach out to all distinct nerd groups, from word to theater to eventually science. I can only guess they’ll bring in Doctor Who eventually.
  • Really embarrassed to remember some of these kids. Favs: Vanya, whose sister won a few years back and is ADORABLE, and Arvind, who has more charm than any child since Jonathan Lipnicki told us all how much the human head weighs.
  • Dr. Jacques Bailly is seriously just the Tim Gunn of the National Spelling Bee. What a dream.
  • Do kids with misspelled names get ashamed during the bee? Or are they drawn to it to correct their parents’ mistakes? I’m looking at you, Christal Schermeister.
  • Guys, if I’m mean about Christal Schermeister, it’s just because she’s clearly going to grow up to be far more intelligent and attractive than me.
  • First ding out! Bummer. I try not to get too attached to anyone during the early rounds. I’m sure many Panem citizens used the same tactic during the Hunger Games.
  • A little more spelling bee background: the kids arrived in D.C. last weekend, and I guess they just go hog-wild in a hotel this week. I mean, as wild as kids who spend all day studying the dictionary can go. It’s like rumspringa for a very particular kind of Amish person.

  • Vanya Shivashankar knows French very well. I mean, of course she does. Best kid ever. BTW, her sister Kavya is here and she’s so grown up! Off to Colombia already.
  • Amber Born: “Is the sentence funny?” Amber wants to be a comedy writer. Amber, girl after my own heart. Please come by and write for us sometimes! As long as you promise not to judge our spelling which is, admittedly, not always awesome. The announcers say she’s a dark horse. Move over, Arvind, I have a new favorite.
  • Sriram is from kind of near me! This matters to none of you. I’ll stop. He gets singerie, which is from French. Apparently when I was taking college French I told Traci that it was the language that they speak in hell. I don’t remember saying that, but it seems like something I would do. Such weird pronunciations! Full disclosure: French was my grandma’s first language, so I’m not just being a jerk. I’m being a jerk to my own beloved family members.
  • Arvind’s drama teacher sees him in a red smoking jacket. I’m sorry, is he a precocious 8th grader or Hugh Hefner? I’m confused.
  • Here is a fantastic spelling bee video (not from today). This kid is my new comedy hero. He was totally punking her:

  • Oh man, I remember Vismaya from last year. She did pretty well and had a distinct air of being probably too cool for this business. Damn, Vismaya. You’re smooth. Delivered “sciomancy” like it was nothing even though she was obviously not sure of it.
  • Grace is pictured diving into one of those pits of foam blocks, which was a childhood dream of mine thanks to all of the gymnastics centers that opened up after the ’96 Olympics. There are also a bunch of trampolines, which reminds me that Amanda Bynes was photographed at a trampoline center at my old city, Buffalo. First of all, I never knew there was a trampoline center there. Second, I am really curious as to what string of events lead her to a Western New York trampo-gym. Buffalo’s right at the border, so maybe that.
  • Bailly and co. tried to recreate those commercials where kids are sitting around being asked questions. I love those commercials, but I can’t say that they’re all that effective, because I can’t remember what they’re for. Was it phones?
  • Grace Remmer is chronicling her various awkward stages that appeared during the bee. Listen. Like most American kids, I can remember my spelling bee downfall painfully well. I was a major bookworm with the vocabulary of a nerdy adult, but I didn’t have an exceptional spelling prowess. See, if they’d had the vocabulary test then, I might have been okay. Anyway, I made it nearly to the end of my elementary school bee, only to be struck down by “counselor.” To be fair, I don’t think we got definitions, and I spelled it councillor, which is a homophone or close to it. Whatever. Anyway, Grace reminds me that it’s not like I’d really want my 11-year-old mug visible on the internet today, anyway. I had the Frizz No Butterfly Clips Can Tame.
  • Christal’s little sister looks majorly concerned. Somebody didn’t study “doryline.” Oh shit. Countdown clock. Bye, Christal. It’s been real. With the sorry spelling genes that your parents passed down, it’s a miracle you made it this far. I mean, Christal?
  • According to the spelling bee kids via Mackelmore, the ceiling is no longer able to hold them.
  • Vanya, stop asking questions, you know this. I was about to wonder whether she got teased with Uncle Vanya references at school, but probably not, right? Because she’s a child?
  • Amber Born reminds me of Traci and I when we first became friends, except actually accomplished at something other than recording The Rosie O’Donnell Show so we didn’t miss it during our afterschool activities.
  • I know envoutement totally LOOKS like a word, but when you pronounce it with a fancy French accent, it sure doesn’t SOUND like one. I reiterate: The Language They Speak In Hell. With all due apologies to my dear, late Grandma. But I think there’s a reason she always spoke English with us, you know?
  • [The reason is my demonstrated inability to speak French properly, probably]
  • This may be the first time I correctly identified a history-based root. Sansculottic, related to the sans-culottes? Yeah, I KILLED AP European. That’s right.
  • Vismaya is from Bountiful, Utah. Was that the town with all of the plural marriages? I read a book on the FLDS but don’t really remember. She’s clearly too cool to take part in that though:There are nine spellers left. NINE. Don’t they know that kids stodgy 20-somethings are watching with strict bedtimes to attend to? Come on, Bailly. Stop playing so nice.
  • Can we talk about redshirting? When I was in eighth grade, maybe half of the kids had turned 14 by the end of the school year. I’d think with all the homeschooling happening, most of these kids would be ahead of grade level for their age. There are a few too many 14-year-olds, is all I’m saying. I’m only regular-smart**, not spelling-bee smart, and teachers even asked my parents if they wanted to skip me ahead a grade. I’m sure some of these old kids are being kept at eighth grade status just to eke out another year of eligibility.

    ** A cold truth to all of you precocious kids out there: eventually, you’ll be average. I may have had a sixth grade reading level in kindergarten, but by law school, I just had a law school reading level. There’s a silver lining, though. That means parents can chill out about trying to teach their babies to read and their 2-year-olds to multiply. Eventually, they’ll probably be exactly as dumb as everyone else.

  • FYI: When there’s an accent mark, the kid doesn’t have to say it. The more you know.
  • Trivia: Vismaya’s mom used to be an actress in India. She got the word right, which is nice, I guess, but I am seriously getting sleepy here. Please start being less excellent, children.
  • Awww. Grace Remmer just got a standing ovation after she dinged out. She’s been here 4 years in a row. Such a likable kid! She’s temporarily taken over for Amber Brown as my favorite of the moment, because SOMEONE had to get eliminated so that this thing ends.
  • ESPN tells me that Nascar will be on in two days. Why do I guess there’s not too much overlap in these 2 audiences?
  • The winner gets $2,000 worth of reference works from Encyclopedia Brittanica. I’m sorry, do people still use encyclopedias? Other than my dad, who pulls down his 1976 Encyclopedia Americana because he doesn’t remember to use Google? In case you’re wondering, my parents are also the people who still use phone books as phone books.
  • This kids difficulty with the pronunciation of kaburi reminds me of this gem:

BOWERY. BALLERY? Bowery. BALLERY? I don’t know if this girl has a hearing impediment or a speech disorder, but either way, I’m going to hell. I’d blame this debacle on a regional accent, but the girl is from Philadelphia. I lived there. I’d understand the confusion if they asked her to say water (“water.” “WOODER?”) or eagles (“eagles.” “IGGLES?”), but bowery should be fine. Just kidding, love you guys, send me some Tastykakes, go Iggles.

  • The announcers just said one kid was the most consistent speller. But, if you’re still on the stage, isn’t it because you’ve gotten everything right? So all of these kids are equally consistent? Well, it’s not a logic bee.
  • So long, Vanya. Unlike most of these red-shirted 14-year-olds, she has two years of eligibility left. I’d really like to see her win one of these years!
  • Guys, Born gets laughs just for walking on stage. Girl’s going places. The last person I remember getting laughs for a mere entrance was Cosmo Kramer.
  • Goodbye, Vismaya! Fortunately, she will seldom come across the word paryphrodrome to haunt her again. It is so obscure that my spell check can’t even tell me how terribly I just butchered it.
  • Amber Born is out. Want to know a secret, Amber? Comedy writer is a cooler title than spelling bee champion, anyway.
  • They just announced that this can’t go on all night. I think I may have heard all of the angels of heaven singing hymns of joy and praise. 25 more words. I can stay awake for this. Maybe.
  • Sriram’s out. Don’t cry, little buddy. There is no way that ptyalagogue is even a real word.
  • AHH WE’RE DOWN TO ONE SPELLER! I’M NOT USING CAPS BECAUSE I’M HAPPY FOR THE WINNER I just really want to go to bed.
  • Oh my God, Arvind could win! This kid! He gets a German word last. German is his language-nemesis. I get this. Right, French?
  • Guys, I just want to do something so amazing ONE TIME that ticker tape confetti is thrown all over me. One time. Other than attending a ticker-tape parade. Love his look of utter shell-shock.

That’s all, kids! Thanks for reading and thanks even more for ignoring all of my spelling mistakes. I’m a bit of an armchair QB as far as spelling bees go.

And Amber, if you want to write a guest post, we’ll be here waiting.