The look on Sameer Mishra's face was priceless. "Numbnut?" he asked to roars of laughter from the audience at last month's Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. Millions more throughout the country joined that chorus of chuckles as they tuned in to the event's live broadcast May 30.
"Numnah," the judge repeated, this time offering a definition: "Numnah is a felt or sheepskin pad placed between a horse's back and the saddle to prevent chafing."
"Oh, numnah!" Mishra blurted, a light bulb suddenly flickering to life in his word-saturated brain. "That's a relief."
Mishra promptly spelled the word correctly, one of 14 English obscurities he successfully navigated en route to outlasting 287 other spellers in the 81st annual bee. The 13-year-old eighth-grader proved a crowd favorite throughout the contest, maintaining his jovial lightheartedness through the final word: guerdon.
Few spectacles offer such a clear display of young intellectual muscle. And with the broad appeal of such recent films as Spellbound and Akeelah and the Bee, a competition once largely ignored has rocketed to front-page news. Given that popularity, no event nationwide provides better advertising for the merits of alternative education. In this year's bee, 98 participants hailed from outside the country's public school system.
Defenders of public schooling point out that Mishra is not among that group. The quick-witted son of Indian immigrants attends West Lafayette Junior/Senior High School in Illinois. But the bee boasts a history of private and even homeschooled champions. In 2000, George Abraham Thampy, who was homeschooled until eighth grade then attended a St. Louis Christian school, won the event while two fellow homeschoolers claimed second and third.
That publicity has helped fuel a rapid rise in the number of homeschooled participants from a small handful in the competitions of the early 1990s to 36 this year. Homeschoolers make up less than 3 percent of the country's student population but accounted for more than 12 percent of this year's spellers.
Third-place finisher Tia Thomas, a 13-year-old eighth-grader from Coarsegold, Calif., attends a sort of home-charter school hybrid. The Mountain Home School Charter in nearby Oakhurst serves homeschooling families with custom curriculum materials and à la carte classes to supplement parent education.
"We're a charter school, but we are absolutely built on the idea of parent authority and home education," said Mountain Home principal Michael Cox. "Family integrity and a robust parent leadership are absolutely essential to healthy children. Homeschooling is not the answer to create robust parenting, but it is part of the picture. When parents step up to do their job, which is absolutely outlined biblically, then kids thrive."
Cox views the national spelling bee as an important opportunity to continue improving cultural attitudes regarding home education, and the celebrity of Thomas can only help Mountain Home and the homeschooling cause. The avid speller and five-time participant in the national bee gripped her central California community in this her final year of competition. She outlasted 285 competitors before tripping on the word opificer when she began it with the letter "e."
"Everybody was tuned in and watching that," Cox said. "I went to a piano recital for my kids afterward and I had people coming up to me quoting the word and shaking their heads. She did such a great job carrying the ball for the school and the community."
Like many of the top finishers, Thomas studied for hours each day in preparation for the bee. Over the past five years, she spelled through the dictionary seven times, a feat sure to pay dividends in Scrabble games for years to come.