Velma Dekhi, a seventh-grader from San Diego, clutched a tear-soaked tissue as she remembered the dreaded agronome.
"I've never heard of the word," she said, her head hanging low, tears welling in her eyes. "I studied 'Words of the Champions.' "
Ah, but study is not enough at the National Spelling Bee, which has gone Big Time with coaches, years of preparation and, this time, a winner whose victory suggested that previous National Spelling Bee experience is a key factor. Winner Balu Natarajan was one of four contestants competing in the National Spelling Bee for the third time. Three of those third-timers made the final 10 this year.
The competition has turned into something of a cerebral Olympics since nine kids outspelled one another in the first National Bee in 1925.
In last week's competition, 168 spellers from 45 states, Mexico, Guam and the Virgin Islands took a whack at 719 words in a competition that lasted two full days--record numbers all for the Bee, sponsored by the Scripps-Howard newspaper company.
"I don't think the smartest one wins. I think the luckiest one wins," said Velma's mother, Khairiya Dekhi, who looked more exasperated than her daughter after the fourth-round misspell.
"I'm exhausted," Mrs. Dekhi said. "I've been helping her learn the words, and I've hardly left the house the last month and a half."
When it was all done, 13-year-old Natarajan of Bolingbrook, Ill., earned the trophy, the $1,000 prize and television talk show invitations by first spelling farrago, missed by second-place finisher Kate Lingley of Maine, and then spelling milieu. He was instantly mobbed by reporters in a scene that rivaled any in the White House or Capitol.
The spellers, aged 9 to 14, had won regional bees and were sponsored by local newspapers to come to Washington where they fell victim to works like uxorious, balalaika, satrapy and mansuetude. Syllepsis sent one three-time competitor off the stage in tears. On came diseases, drugs, cooking terms, Yiddish, French and Japanese words and slang terms like grungy-- no word was too weird.
At times it seemed almost cruel. Kid after kid--their braces gleaming, huge eyeglasses glistening--marched to the microphone in front of hundreds of spectators, three rows of television cameras, dozens of reporters and a panel of judges with earphones plugged into an audio and taping system, all them essentially waiting for 167 kids to hear the bell ("wrong!") and be escorted off stage by a Bee staffer offering an enthusiastic embrace or handshake.
From the stage, losers were led to a recovery room, which was roped off to keep away the scores of television and newspaper reporters from all over the country. In the room behind closed doors were soft drinks, potato chips and privacy. It came to be known as the "crying room."
"Some cry, some are relieved, and some of them run into their friends and start laughing," said one staff member who had been inside.
"I suppose the girls cried more than the boys. One woman said her boy didn't want to go in there with a bunch of crying women."
To ward off a loss, the 101 girls and 67 boys not only brought parents--some of whom drilled their children on spelling lists in the Capital Hilton hallways--but others clutched stuffed animals, a lucky pine cone or a good-luck marble, looking particularly child-like as they approached such towering adult foes as marmoraceous and lagniappe.
Mitsuko Igarashi of Memphis was given the word fascist.
After hearing the definition, she looked back innocently.
"Is that like communism?" the 14-year-old queried.
"No," said the official. "They tend not to get along very well."
Another tiny girl with blond hair to her waist, dressed in a baby blue dress and blue knee socks, could not pronounce defibrillate, despite several valiant tries. Looking even younger than her 11 years, Kedra Haroldsen of Blackfoot, Ida., turned big, pleading eyes to the official and asked for a definition. She was told in very technical terms about the technique used to correct faulty heart rhythms.
Another speller expressed shock and indignation when the official offered fescue to her.
"What?!!!" she gasped in disbelief.
Questions and Ponderings
Interminably, the spellers rolled their eyes, stared at the ceiling and tried envisioning words by tracing them on their palms with a finger. They asked for definitions, root language, alternate pronunciations and use of the word in a sentence. And then, some of them would ponder the word some more. After a particularly surprising correct spelling, some girls would exchange hugs or the boys would trade high-five handshakes as camaraderie blossomed. Several brought their autograph books and talked later about all the friends they had made.
While other kids had gone on tours of Washington before the Bee began, Natarajan had stayed in the hotel, going over lists of words for hours. He skipped his graduation ceremony, which took place on the day he won. After finishing 45th in 1983 and 63rd last year, Natarajan said the key to his win this year was that he "learned how to guess" at words he had not heard of, rather than just disgustedly uttering the first letters that came to mind. Two of the words he had guessed at were rheumatoid and dilatoriness.
Natarajan was one of many spellers who were bilingual offspring of immigrant parents.
From Immigrant Families
Three of the four contestants from Southern California were from immigrant families. The one who lasted the longest, 14-year-old Dung Minh Le of McFadden Junior High in Santa Ana, is a Vietnamese refugee who began learning English seven years ago. She made it to the final 30 and then made a rather cheerful exit on precentor in the sixth round.
"I'm not sad," she said immediately afterward, refusing the staffer's offer for some time in the recovery room. "I did better than I thought I would."
Dung was one of many spellers who had a coach. The coach drilled her for 1 1/2 hours almost every day after school for a month. They studied "Words of the Champions," a list put out by the Bee, and also began going through the dictionary.
"We got through the G's," said Dung, who had never heard the word precentor, despite all her study. "I memorize as many words as I can. I can spell about half the words they gave here, and would be able to guess some more."
The hardest part, said Dung, was "going up there in front of all those people, and trying to figure out a word with all those people looking at you. I would rather have it be a written test."
That, of course, would be the true test of who was the best speller. But a spelling bee has never pretended to be a spelling test. It is a head-to-head competition, a performance, where talent and preparation are mandatory but poise under pressure is the thing that ultimately determines success or failure, the way it does in a basketball game, an opera or a speech.
Poise under pressure probably runs in the blood of Dung Minh Le's family. Her father, Ngoc Minh Le, was in the South Vietnamese army when Saigon fell, and had to flee with his young family. They were rescued by a U. S. helicopter and transported to the U. S. 7th Fleet, leaving other relatives behind.
Another speller, 14-year-old Linn Yann from Chattanooga, Tenn., was a Cambodian refugee who walked 100 miles to her freedom at the Thailand border. After studying English words four hours a day since she arrived in the United States six years ago, Yann smiled and caressed her teddy bear as she left the competition, tripping on the word verdigris.
Problem With English
Eleven-year-old Victor Wang of Camarillo, one of the youngest contestants, spoke only Chinese during his first few years of life. Upon entering kindergarten, he had such a problem with English that his teacher recommended a speech therapist. Instead, the whole family plunged into learning English with Victor.
Because he had a piano competition in May, Victor didn't devote full time to preparing for the spelling bee until two weeks before the opening round. His teacher allowed him to come home early from school, and his father would drill him for three or four hours, using a book on how to learn to speak English.
"I learned a lot," said Victor's father, Shu-Huan Wang, who came to the United States from Taiwan 13 years ago. "We used all kinds of strategies. We told him if he would study, we would take him to the beach, give him chocolate, gum, let him play on the computer for one hour. He's very passive. He's a kid. He likes to play around."
Victor met his Waterloo at maniple in the fifth round.
"It was fun," Victor said afterward.
The best part?
"The tours," he said.
Velma Dekhi, the San Diego girl who was knocked out by agronome, is descended from Iraqi parents and speaks Chaldean as well as English. She is an honors student at St. Therese Academy.
Another Southern California competitor, Jennifer Hundley of Riverside, was a victim of paladin.
"I didn't know exactly how he was pronouncing it," said Hundley, a native English speaker. Like many contestants, Hundley was experiencing her first trip to Washington and her first airplane ride.
"I started in the fourth grade trying to win spelling bees," said Hundley. Her method, she said, "is a photographic memory.
"I wish I could have done better. But I feel good about getting here."