WASHINGTON, D.C.-Only at the very end did 13-year-old speller Anurag Kashyap lose his cool. Exsiccosis did not dismay him in Round 17, and he slew ornithorhynchous in Round 12. But so stunned was he when he won the 78th Annual Scripps National Spelling Bee, he shielded his face with his contestant number and dissolved into tears.
If Anurag was overwhelmed, it may have been because the whole room was cheering for him. Spellers knocked out earlier yelped in anticipation when the pronouncer declared appoggiatura as his final word, knowing it was a cinch for the eighth-grader from San Diego. Parents sprung to their feet in applause and remained standing as he hoisted the champion's gold trophy.
With his father at turns grinning and mopping his eyes with a striped handkerchief, Anurag could initially find only one word to describe his emotion. "Ecstaticness," he said, before the new spelling champ corrected himself. "I went up against 272 great competitors . . . this competition would be nothing without the camaraderie."
Even as the June 1-2 spelling bee was as fierce as it has ever been, camaraderie was in play throughout the competition. This year's national round drew the greatest number of spellers ever. Yet as they brought months of intense studying and a hunger to win to the stage, they also comforted one another and built friendships.
That was evident in the wide carpeted hallway outside the crowded competition room at Washington's Grand Hyatt Hotel. Reporters eyed tall double doors outside the "comfort room," a sanctuary where bee officials ushered contestants after they misspelled a word, waiting for vanquished spellers to emerge for perhaps tearful interviews.
Seattle homeschooler Claire Nieman, 13, knew the anteroom well. Last year she tied for 27th place; this year she tied for 37th with 14 other spellers after she stumbled on the word glottalize in Round 5. Minutes later she emerged from the comfort room with her parents and little sister, grateful she had been a contestant again.
"I really, really wanted to be up here, and I had to wait till sixth grade," she told WORLD, her voice rising with excitement. "I thought, 'I want to be at the national spelling bee someday.'"
She glanced down at her disappointed sister, who was clinging to her mother in a lilac sweatshirt: "Charlotte always cries when I get out."
With all her devotion to spelling, poring over obscure Latin derivatives has not been Claire's only passion. She has played the piano for seven years. ("She's pretty good," her father interjected.) She sings in her church choir. And she loves to read. Her favorite book? Eats, Shoots and Leaves, of course-the national bestseller on grammar and punctuation usage.
Two rounds later, Claire was outside the comfort room again. This time she was waiting with fellow contestant Dorian Burks (out in Round 4) for an also-fallen friend, Kimberly Campbell Olson, to emerge. So what's to comfort Kimberly in the comfort room?
"It's just a room where you can be private," Claire explained.
"And they have snacks in there," said Dorian, 13, "but it's hard to eat when you're traumatized." Both spellers said they just sipped Mountain Dew when they were inside. When a serene-looking Kimberly exited with family, Claire wrapped her in a bear hug. The 12-year-old Gainesville, Fla., homeschooler tied for 28th place, but had it tougher in some ways: Her sister Katie tied for sixth place in the bee last year and directed Kimberly's study schedule. "Towards the end I had to study more and more," Kimberly said. In all, she mastered some 17,500 words.
Homeschoolers have been increasingly successful at the national spelling bee, as well as other academic competitions. This year's bee saw 34 homeschool children who are not only accomplished academics, but musicians and athletes, too. Another group blazing trails includes children like Anurag, sons and daughters of South Asian immigrants who emphasize strong study habits. The top four spellers this year were Indian, as were three of the four previous champions since 2001.
If these children are some of the brightest in their generation, they also have a reputation for lacking social skills. But nobody would know that looking at 12-year-old Jonathan Horton of Gilbert, Ariz. Ousted in Round 7 in his first national spelling bee, Jonathan breezed through his media interviews afterwards like a savvy congressman on Capitol Hill.
"Spell your last name," asked one reporter with ABC, as Jonathan settled into a chair in front of the crew's camera.
"Y-O-U-R . . . L-A-S-T . . . N-A-M-E," he replied.
His mother, Michelle, shook her head as she watched on the sidelines. "It's his father's fault because he lets him watch The Three Stooges."
Wearing round spectacles and white Velcro-strap sneakers, Jonathan urged the reporter not to call him a favorite for next year. But he has been preparing for the bee since third grade, and told WORLD he has other competitions ahead next year in geography, math, and spelling.
"I was a little frustrated I didn't make it a tad further," he said. "Next year I'll be happy to get at least past this year. You have to want to win more than everyone else." Jonathan advanced through words such as arbuscle and exanthematic. But fustion, he said, pausing, "was my doom."
Not everyone appreciated the bee, however. On the sidewalks bordering the Hyatt about a dozen picketers paced up and down carrying signs. They were members of the Simplified Spelling Society, a group advocating more predictable spelling than they say the English language offers, as a way to curb illiteracy.
"Enuf is Enuf" read several of the signs they toted. "Enough is too much," read an alternative. "Ban the B in Bomb," read another, though it did not specify which one.
One protester was Nicholas Kerr, an Anglican clergyman who had flown from England for the event. Words like lead, he said, pronounced two ways, make it hard for children to learn to read.
"The language comes along and says, 'Don't be logical,'" he said. "Children are very logical." The spellers inside appeared to disprove his point. They are the "cream of the cream," he explained.
Among the cream, even with disappointments, there were few tears amid the lower-ranked spellers. Dorian, an eighth-grade homeschooler from Buffalo, N.Y., had an especially wrenching knock-out on a word he knew. Told to spell precative-an adjective meaning expressing entreaty, according to Webster's-he asked if it was related to the word precatory.
"Then I spelled precatory," he said, staring at the ground. Still, he knew he did better in the bee than he once expected. "My mom told me about it in sixth grade," he said. "I wasn't sure about it. I didn't think I was a very good speller." Thankfully, Dorian has other pursuits to return to; he has played piano for eight years, he figure-skates, and he works a paper route.
Contests like the spelling bee bring out the best of many participants' worlds: competitive excellence coupled with generous sportsmanship. If the bee is any indication, competition does not raise insensitive kids. As school systems slip in quality, the bee also offers an objective standard of achievement-and emphasizes expertise, said Michael Farris, chairman of the Home School Legal Defense Association.
"You don't want a guy designing a radar to say, 'if you get within a couple of degrees, it's good enough,'" he said. "Precision is important to almost every skilled endeavor."
But with so many talented homeschoolers and South Asian juggernauts dominating the bee, is it in danger of becoming elitist? "It's always been elitist," Mr. Farris said. "It separates the good spellers from the bad spellers . . . the kind of elitism we don't want is based on race or who your parents are or what side of town you're from-something other than hard work and achievement."
For champion Anurag, who has appeared twice at the bee, the prize is hefty: $22,000, a $5,000 college scholarship, a $1,000 U.S. savings bond, and sets of encyclopedias. Ever responsible, the California native said he would save the money for college. But right now, he has to figure out what to do with his time during spelling bee season next year.