WASHINGTON — 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.