Like most seventh-grade boys, he's short and scrawny, on the fringe of getting truly awkward. He wears a red, tucked-in polo (the same shirt he wore to win the state bee), khaki shorts, white socks and cross-trainers. He comes off friendly if a bit mature for a thirteen-year-old; he is neither aloof nor a smart-ass. Then a door behind the champ swings open and two middle-school girls swagger in. A light-blonde with mischievous eyes takes the lead, sauntering across the room and sending her sidekick into a spasm of giggles. The lady parade strolls behind Toland, and as they brush past him, the light-blonde mutters all sorts of snort-fodder, and suddenly there's a change in the champ's reserved demeanor. An unstoppable smile creeps across his face, and as that smile mixes with his struggle to hide it, the champ seems his age.
Soon Toland's on the move, walking the streets of Iola toward the town's courthouse square, where an erratic festival is taking place. A man in head-to-toe buckskin guards the cages of a camel, a tiger and two puppy wolves. A woman dressed in nineteenth-century garb approaches the crowd and announces, "I'm Iola Colborn. I'm 169 years old." When Toland arrives, Iola walks up and personally praises him. "This guy -- he's our pride and joy of the town," she says. "How often do we have a championship speller?"
The answer, as Iola should know, is never. This spring, Toland stormed through his school and county contests, laying more than 150 challengers in his wake. After a grueling state competition that heard the spelling and misspelling of 549 words, he became both Iola's and Allen County's first state champion. The Sunday afterward, his church congregation broke into a standing ovation at the news. The Iola Register, a fourth-generation family-owned daily, celebrated him on its front page. Someone at Bonnie's Corner Cafe chalked his name on the menu board. Iola Middle School officials produced a plaque in his honor that now hangs in the cafeteria. E-mails flooded in from other spellers around the country. A letter arrived from a woman in Hunt, Texas, inviting Toland to hone his skills at her spelling camp.
So began Toland's trip to the National Spelling Bee, an event so grandiose and American that a Washington Post writer once likened it to the Tournament of Roses parade. For similar reasons, a less friendly scribe called it "medieval, unnatural and repellent."
In preparation for the big event, Toland says, "There are some really hard words that I engrave in my mind. 'Japonaiserie.' J-A-P-O-N-A-I-S-E-R-I-E. It's something Japanese. There's another one, a chemical or something. It's 'yttrium.' Y-T-T-R-I-U-M."
Although a national spelling bee has been around since 1925, the Scripps Howard newspaper chain took over in 1941 and promoted it into a landmark of the American education system. Each year, kids from all over the country (and a handful of other countries and territories) come to Washington, D.C., from public, private, parochial and home schools to compete for a cash prize that now totals $10,000. Today, as the 248 contestants rush the luxurious Grand Hyatt lobby, they do so not just with family and close friends but with spelling coaches, mentors and gurus as well. And when the hordes of journalists from sponsoring newspapers check in for press credentials, they do so alongside ESPN, which has covered the final rounds of the National Spelling Bee for the past eight years.
This means that when twelve-year-old Mallika Thampy walks through the hotel lobby, past its lavish lagoon and twelve-story atrium, fellow contestants, parents, coaches and reporters turn their heads. Last year, Thampy's brother George outlasted Sean Conley for the 2000 national title, and that relation to greatness has some bee insiders calling her a favorite to win it this year. But then in walks Conley himself, a pale-faced kid with giant green eyes, and others believe the odds favor him. Consequently, these odds weigh against the new faces in the lobby, such as the Jackson County champion, Justin Shilhanek. The twelve-year-old from Lee's Summit had never even made it to the county bee before this spring, so his appearance at the national contest makes him one of its top underdogs. Three brave fourth graders stand as the bee's longest of long shots.
When Scott Toland arrives for registration on May 27, he does so with his family by his side and his inanimate coaches -- the Scripps Howard word lists and a dictionary -- packed away in his bag. In his normal day-to-day existence, Toland is a marvel. He plays piano, percussion, saxophone and clarinet. He performs in plays and competes in athletics. Last year, when the Iola Community Theater put on a musical and something was amiss in the opening number of act two, he added wood blocks to the percussion, and by all accounts the piece was reborn.
Toland's family doesn't slack, either. Next fall, his eighteen-year-old sister, Carol, will coordinate KU's Music Mentors program, which matches talented college musicians with aspiring junior high students. His brother Mark, who hasn't even entered Iola High School, already has published art in the school's literary magazine. And younger brother Kent, who will be in fourth grade next fall, kicked off his own spelling career as an alternate for his school in this year's county bee. "Everybody has to turn out in a small community," says Toland's mother, Karen. "We all have to pitch in."
In the real world, all of this sets Toland apart. But in the Grand Hyatt lobby on registration day, he becomes one of many.
Two days later, Scott Toland finds himself ready to take the stage for the 74th Annual Scripps Howard Spelling Bee. The stage, covered in cherry-red carpet, holds eight rows of stadiumlike seating. A photographers' pit sits just in front of the stage. Beyond that rests the judges' table, and beyond that a ballroom full of seats. A black curtain falls behind the stage, adorned with blown-up copies of newspaper headlines from national championships past. In the middle of these headlines hangs the contest's official logo, a simple design that cleverly includes a stinging insect.
Scott Toland stands in the back of the room. He looks over the crowd, the curtain, the bright red stage, and anxiously waits for the evening session to begin. This afternoon, thirty of 123 kids misspelled their words. They asked for definitions, alternate pronunciations, homonyms and language origins. If they thought the word contained a root word -- such as "con," meaning "with" -- they asked for that suspicion to be confirmed. Some took a finger and traced the word across their forearm or the back of their placard to help visualize the correct spelling. Then they took a shot and, hoping to hear silence, received the sharp sound of the judges' bell instead. Thirty spellers found themselves led away by a friendly bee worker. Some smiled or shrugged; others cringed or cried.
The comparison of spellers to Olympic hopefuls, one usually made in jest, is more accurate than humorous. Some of these kids have committed several hours a day to the bee. A few have learned Latin, Greek, French or Italian. To prepare, some kids have read dictionaries (plural). Others have not. For those, the event can become the great equalizer, much like the Olympic games. There's a propensity to step up, and there's a propensity to choke. This is partly why the modern-day spelling bee is usually won by a student who has made it to D.C. before and experienced the pressure.
"Oh, I think stress plays a big part in it," says one spelling coach. "I've had students miss a word. It's what I call 'blowing it.' They just blow it. The only time you spell orally in your life is in a spelling bee. I mean, somebody might ask you how to spell 'pusillanimous,' and off the top of your head you tell them. But you don't spell word after word after word orally. It's only in the spelling bee. So it's matter of being able to think on your feet, to think in front of an audience, to not get stressed out with it or have the anxiety level push up too high. That's a big, big issue."
The National Spelling Bee settles into a languid pace, especially in the early rounds, when some spellers wait more than two hours for their turns. For this reason, bee coordinators split spellers into two groups for the opening rounds to avoid the cruel and unusual treatment of waiting four hours to get choked with a word like "zugzwang," pronounced "tsook-tsvahng." One boy actually receives this monster in the first round, and the resulting confusion over the difficult pronunciation prompts the bee's announcer, Dr. Alex Cameron, to rise from his perch, approach the speller's microphone and enunciate the word up close and personal. The boy mangles it nonetheless.
Cameron is as large a celebrity as the contest offers, a 21-year bee veteran praised annually for his professionalism and blessed lack of accent. He stands as the contest's only constant, the man responsible for delivering every speller's fate. His eyebrows are frozen in a permanent arch, while the rest of his face, led by a pair of drowsy eyes, falls into a significant droop. Since national winners are not allowed to defend their championships, it is this mug that has unofficially become the face of the National Spelling Bee.
From his seat onstage, Toland listens to Cameron's delivery of each word, spells it to himself and waits for his turn. To his right sits Jamaican contestant Daniel James Thomas, whose coach, the Reverend Glen O.J. Archer, mentored the 1998 champion. Not too far away sits Sean Conley, who claims to have taught himself to read at the age of two. Also onstage is the wild-haired and determined-looking Joy Nyenhuis-Rouch, the only competitor returning for a fourth year. Lee's Summit's Justin Shilhanek sits onstage as well, cursed with one of the longest waits of any speller.
In a sense, all preparation for the National Spelling Bee boils down to the first round, when Cameron unleashes a sinister batch of words (achavailiot, phaeochrous, balalaika) in an attempt to significantly thin the field of contestants. From there, it's a sickening plummet to the second round, when words as pedestrian as "tartar" are announced to the silent groans of first-round victims. Words increase in difficulty from there, to the point of absurdity in the final rounds, but the first round is the most dangerous because spellers can simply catch a bad word. They just don't know it. Or they know it, but they have forgotten.
For weeks, Scott Toland prepared for the bee with this oft-repeated Scripps Howard assurance on his mind: Spellers who study the word lists will survive the first round. Total bunk.
While all the first-round words are derived from these lists, the truth is much closer to the testimony of Jo Hutson. In 1958, a then fourteen-year-old Hutson traveled from McPherson, Kansas, to Washington, D.C., and became the state's first national champion. The victory got her a spot on The $64,000 Question, where her spelling prowess won her $8,000 in addition to the $1,000 Scripps Howard paid out at the time.
"By my last year I was probably studying eight hours a day," she remembers. "That's a lot of hours. I started with the lists they sent out, and of course you're not guaranteed that the words will come from the lists. I would study the lists, and then my mom would pronounce them to me. For hours. We would do them as we were doing dishes and after supper. Then she would mark the words that I missed, and I would take them back and study them, and we would go over them again.
"Once I learned the lists, then I began studying the dictionaries, so I probably went through three or four dictionaries, literally studying every word in the dictionary. Once we had done that, then for probably the last three or four months before the National Spelling Bee I would go into town -- my mom was teaching school in town -- and I would go with her and use one of the big unabridged dictionaries to find words that I hadn't learned."
Florence Bailly, once the country's premier spelling guru, calls this the nature of the game. During her nineteen-year coaching career, Bailly directed three national championship runs and several more national appearances. Students from the Denver area, where Bailly lives, sought her guidance like upstart boxers seeking a legendary cornerman. Bailly would adopt just one pupil every two years, then proceed to condition the child into a spelling whirlwind.
"Practice started out one day a week," she says of her tutoring years (1977 to 1996). "Then pretty soon they'd want two days a week. This is another reason why I don't coach anymore. Then they'd want three days a week. Then they'd want Saturday, then they'd want Sunday. They'd get on a roll with it. Then they'd want to come every day, and that meant I had to make lesson preparations for them, so it got to be like a full-time job for me."
As bland as it might seem, the National Spelling Bee has garnered a number of detractors through the years, from academics who label the contest as demoralizing to everyday folks who mock the contest for its impractical and chief action: channeling remote and useless words from the dark recesses of unabridged dictionaries. In 1995, the literary journal Granta published an essay by Neil Steinberg based on his observations of the National Spelling Bee a few years earlier. (The scathing piece was later included in Steinberg's book, Complete and Utter Failure: A Celebration of Also-Rans, Runners-Up, Never-Weres and Total Flops.) "Some flack at Scripps Howard half a century ago decided to wed their corporate name to this sort of high-toned, skewed and pedantic endeavor," he wrote. "The end result was this curse, handed down through generations by the unthinking to poor children who, desperate to excel at something, have the misfortune to try to excel at so nugatory an enterprise as this. They might as well be reciting the digits of pi, for all the good knowing how to spell 'cispontine' or 'accrescent' or 'mugient' is ever going to do them."
From the fledgling events in classrooms to the orthographical apex in Washington, D.C., a total of 10 million children compete; then 9,999,999 lose. And while hundreds of students do in fact win school, regional and state contests, Steinberg dismisses these smaller victories as the wicked process of "weeding out the losers and creating increasingly smaller sets of winners who move on to lose at higher levels."
Although it's based on bee truths, Steinberg's criticism overlooks one major thing -- the kids themselves tend to love the contest and don't feel nearly as squeamish about losing as some adults do for them. That's why the bee has woven itself into the American extracurricular fabric, right alongside Little League Baseball and high school cheerleading. But as with these other usually benign activities, there's a dark side.
The first-ever brawl associated with a spelling bee occurred last February in Akron, Ohio, when a family erupted into violence at a contest in which none of them was even competing. The melee stemmed from criminal charges brought by some of the children against their father; they accused him of mentally and physically abusing them as punishment for losing spelling bees. The oldest sister, Marjory, claimed her father even had to be restrained after she placed as high as second in the 1995 National Spelling Bee. She also charges that her father would not allow his youngest daughter to sleep, eat or use the bathroom after a loss in a school contest last year. Two of the children call the charges lies.
In February, Marjory and her youngest sister encountered their father and his two supportive children at a district spelling bee. Both sides say they were scouting the event in preparation for the youngest child's bee just a few days away. Before long, Marjory and her sister Mary were on the floor pummeling each other. A bee worker had to break up the scuffle. Before the night ended, Marjory's brother John had grabbed her by the throat, pushed her into a wall and threatened her with a camera tripod.
Their younger sister won her district spelling bee two nights later.
By the time Scott Toland approaches the microphone at center stage, twenty more spellers have dropped to words such as "majuscule," "Charybdis" and "ooporphyrin." Now Toland, dressed in his lucky red polo, stands nervously and listens as the ever-steady Dr. Cameron delivers his word: "paroemia."
"Paroemia," Toland repeats, then asks for the definition.
"A rhetorical proverb," Cameron answers.
"Paroemia. Paroemia," Toland says. He asks for the word to be used in a sentence.
"Coach Morgan's favorite paroemia is, 'A rolling stone gathers no moss,'" Cameron responds.
It's a bad word. Toland struggles to think of it, but his mind goes blank. He's sure he studied it, but the word just does not come. He stalls for time, asking for the language of origin. "Paroemia," he repeats, the feeling in his stomach worsening. "Paroemia." He requests the definition again.
While Cameron delivers each word and answers all questions, a panel of six judges determines whether spellers sufficiently understand their words. They make sure the contestants pronounce their words correctly, and if anyone stalls, they ask him or her to start spelling. And although they seldom use it, the judges have the power to disqualify kids who fail to respond.
The judges ask Toland to pronounce the word. He does as they ask, then gives it his best shot. His first letter, P, is followed by a grave breath, and the next six sputter out slowly. "A...R...E...M...I...A." Paremia.
The bell tolls, and a friendly bee worker meets Toland to the right of the stage, then guides him to the Comfort Room, a secluded backstage sanctuary of punch, cookies and, depressingly, dictionaries. Toland sits down, still in shock at the speed of it all. Compared with some of his fellow spellers, Toland's post-elimination mood is relatively calm. Many spellers break down. "That's the adrenaline going down," Bailly says. "The adrenaline level is very high. They have a lot at stake. They've worked hard."
The Scripps Howard people realize this and are famously protective of the Comfort Room. It is a rare exception when anyone but spellers and their families are allowed in. Fortunately, Toland doesn't feel the need to weep or thrash. Instead, he sits alone for several minutes and considers his word. Paroemia.
Soon, three more spellers join Toland in the loser's shack, felled by the might of "ginglymus," "brunazem" and "mittimus," respectively. Each of these spellers is accompanied back by a different person, as the Scripps Howard machine has a personal system for escorting eliminated spellers. Not just one or two, but several bee workers line up one after the other to carry away the next fallen speller. The bell rings, out comes a bee worker and up pops another. It's precise, robotic and emblematic of the contest as a whole. A full-time Scripps Howard staff works throughout the year to fine-tune the National Spelling Bee from its headquarters in Cincinnati. The staff, made up mostly of former spellers, produces word lists and study materials, organizes the bee's 240 sponsors and plans the main event. These people are famously dedicated. At times, this dedication turns into hypersensitivity. When the Washington Post Magazine published a story only peripherally critical of the bee, staffers reportedly reacted in outrage and anguish over what they deemed bad publicity.
But the bee does have its enemies. It even has a blacklist with at least one name inked in and underlined: Linda Tarrant. "They will not allow me to attend the national bee, they feel so strongly," says Tarrant, who contacted Toland and other national spellers this spring about attending a spelling camp she plans to open in the near future. "This is not just a lighthearted thing."
Tarrant's rocky relationship with Scripps Howard started in the 1980s, when she coached all three of her daughters to the national bee. Surprised that no one produced study materials tailored specifically for spelling bee competitors, Tarrant decided to go into the business herself using the sacred Scripps Howard word lists as her guide. Furious, the bee's lawyers demanded she stop and followed through with a lawsuit that the parties eventually settled out of court. The Spelling Mom -- Tarrant's nickname, according to her own employees -- says that contrary to Scripps Howard's beliefs, her materials actually promote the bee. "I don't think they see it that way," she admits. "They really don't like us. I know most of them, and it's not a personal thing, but they wish we didn't exist, let me put it that way. I think they feel we're a competitor. I think they feel like we're looking over their shoulder, and I think they don't like either one of those things."
Two days after walking off the stage in defeat, Scott Toland, the Kansas champ, sits in the audience and watches as a field of eighty spellers dwindles in two and a half hours. He looks on as Jackson County champ Justin Shilhanek stumbles and falls on "cheroot" after making an impressive run into the final day of competition. He sees Jamaica's Daniel Thomas take his leave with "recrement," then four-time competitor Joy Nyenhuis-Rouch with "alkyd."
As the stage empties, the tension builds. At one point, ESPN commentator and 1979 bee winner Katie Kerwin tells the TV audience that some spellers want to be eliminated "because they can relax a little." As she says this, a girl from New Hampshire walks off the stage with a look of pain on her face.
When the field of 248 finally comes down to two spellers, the Grand Hyatt ballroom freezes. Now the very things that made the bee's first fifteen hours so laborious -- repetition and tedium -- turn its final moments into a dramatic battle of wills between two thirteen-year-olds: the confident Kristin Hawkins of Leesburg, Virginia, and the tranquil Sean Conley of Aitkin, Minnesota. Hawkins has just dominated her tenth word of the bee, and now Conley waits for Dr. Cameron to announce his next word. When Cameron hesitates, the speller is forced to stand alone at center stage, thousands of people watching his every squirm. The lapse lasts exactly half a minute, and the time is agonizing. Conley waits onstage, with nothing but a skinny microphone and a couple feet of red carpet between him and the pit of photographers. He seems unsure of what to do, so he rocks back and forth on his feet. His arms fall to his sides, and his fingers wiggle a little. ESPN's blinding lights beam down upon him. There is absolute silence.
"Epexegesis," Cameron finally says, relieving an unbearable tension. Conley's eyes still hold a distant expression. After requesting the definition and asking a root-word question, he dives into "epexegesis" and nails it. When the judges confirm his spelling, he simply turns around and sits. The expression on his face never changes.
Hawkins, on the other hand, is more animated. As she receives her words, her active eyebrows reveal either uncertainty or sureness.
"Orthoepy," Cameron announces, his own face falling into a series of unconscious ticks and jerks.
Hawkins asks only for the definition and then spells the word in one brash breath. The show of force is staggering. But a few rounds later, she trips on "recipisence." She calmly returns to her seat and bequeaths a small smile to Conley. Then her thin lips settle into a pensive frown that looks as if somebody has penciled a dome beneath her nose.
For the contest to end, Conley must spell two words in a row correctly. He is first given "gallimaufry," which means a medley, mixture, hodgepodge or jumble. When he spells it correctly, the crowd, including Hawkins, breaks into restless applause. With just one word to go, Cameron and the judges allow a lengthy pause that serves no purpose but to challenge the boy's nerves. Unsure of what to do, Conley timidly walks backward a few steps, then turns and shakes Hawkins' hand. He stands beside her for a second, and it seems to be a small relief for him, like he considers her an ally.
As Conley slowly steps back to the mic, the bee's head judge explains the situation: "Since Sean is the only speller remaining in round fifteen he will be given the next word on the pronouncer's list, round sixteen, and if he spells it correctly, he will be the champion." This last word -- "champion" -- falls heavily.
After another long pause, Cameron delivers the word: "Succedaneum." Shutter clicks now break the silence as photographers snap away at Conley, who repeats the word, asks for a definition, then begins to spell.
"Succedaneum. S-U-C-C-E-D-A-N," he begins, his eyes aiming straight at the ground. He stops. Now his giant green eyes lift off the floor and peer directly through the audience. The final three letters come out in a slow, even tone. First, his head swivels to the left, then to his right. Finally, Sean Conley looks down at the judges with his frozen eyes, and without the slightest lift in expression secures the championship: "E...U...M."
The crowd roars its approval. Conley looks unsure of what to do, and it's a few moments before he's given any indication of where things go from here. Then Scripps Howard CEO Kenneth Lowe approaches Conley with the championship trophy in his hand. The crowd is now on its feet and cheering as the two hold up the trophy. At their feet, a dozen photographers lean across the stage and fire away. Then the CEO exits and once again, Conley stands alone. He holds the trophy above his head, unsure of which camera to look at. When he tries to smile, the right side of his mouth rises a bit as if pulled by string. The photographers press him to smile more, so he stretches his lips out sideways to expose a glimpse of his teeth. He looks more nervous than ever.
In the moments following the 2001 National Spelling Bee, Scott Toland watches the celebration and thinks about next year, his last year of eligibility. He considers whether he wants to go through this again -- the daily practice, the incremental process of reaching D.C., the pressure of standing onstage. Then one quiet, inspiring instant comes to mind, when he learned exactly what it takes to go all the way.
It occurred away from the action, in the hallway during a lunch break earlier on the last day. With ESPN set to go live and more than eighty spellers still in the running, Toland noticed the eventual champion, Sean Conley, off to the side, studying.