Backstage at the Bee

Three years of watching my exceptional student compete with the world’s best spellers.

You are more likely to be struck by lightning than you are to make the finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. That’s reality for the approximately 11 million students who have participated this year at some level in the annual spelling challenge. Staggering odds, sure, but my student beat them more than once.

Next month he will join some 280 spellers vying to be among 10 finalists competing live on ESPN for the National Spelling Bee Champion title. He and his family have taken me with them on this incredible journey. This is the story of my three years at the Bee with this amazing “spellebrity.”

Spellbound

As a public school teacher working with students identified as gifted, I thought I had seen and experienced it all. However, my skills were put to the test in the fall of 2013 when quiet yet self-assured Tejas Muthusamy (pronounced “Tay-jus Moo-thoo-sah-mee”) entered my fifth-grade classroom. I had met him the previous year when I was asked to help his First Lego League team prepare for a local competition. I knew he had won the school spelling bee as a fourth-grader but did not fully understand his talents before he became my student.

At the 2014 Scripps National Spelling Bee, Tejas Muthusamy executes his steadfast routine: asking for a word’s pronunciation, definition, origin and what part of speech it is; requesting use of the word in a sentence; querying for alternative pronunciations; repeating the word one last time; then, finally, spelling it with his finger on his hand. (Getty Images)

Even though he was only 10 and I am in Mensa, having Tejas for fifth grade presented me with some challenges. I learned to save his essays to grade last, as they would take longer to read and assess. He once wrote: “These papilionaceous arthropods undergo an excruciating metamorphosis, sport eye-pleasing features, and digest a variety of viands.” This walking dictionary had a great sense of humor, and it wasn’t long before his classmates and I grew to appreciate all he had to offer, especially after he brought down the house with his spot-on impersonation of the Greek goddess Aphrodite during our classroom “Greek Grammy Awards” day. Yes, Aphrodite, complete with rose petals that he tossed to the crowd!

Tejas excelled in all subjects of the advanced curriculum classes our school-based gifted center offered but especially loved vocabulary challenges. He was a wordsmith in every sense, as he would learn not only the spellings of words but also their language of origin, alternate pronunciations, synonyms, antonyms and various definitions. Weekly spelling tests were not going to be enough for him, so we enrolled our class in the Gold division of the WordMasters Challenge. This verbal reasoning and analogy competition was just the kind of educational challenge that gifted students like Tejas crave. He became one of only two students in the country to earn a perfect score for all three meets, and he helped our class team win second place overall. The connections Tejas made through participation in this program helped prepare him for spelling bee competitions.

Hooked on Phonics

The Scripps National Spelling Bee originates in third- to eighth-grade classrooms around the country, as well as some other parts of the world, starting in early December each year. In 2013, after winning our classroom competition, Tejas went on to win our school spelling bee. Next was our district’s spelling bee, which was held in January, and Tejas won with the word compositae, finally beating his district champion rival and 56 other school champions. He was on his way to the regional competition in March. It was at this competition that I first saw the results of the methodical coaching he received from his mom, Sri. Wearing his trademark white shirt, Tejas calmly approached the microphone for each word given. Even if he immediately knew how to spell the word, he went through the same routine before responding by asking the following questions, in one form or another:

He’d repeat the word, and then ask, “Am I pronouncing the word correctly?”

Definition please?
What is the language of origin?
Part of speech?
Can you use it in a sentence?
Are there any alternate pronunciations?

Finally, after repeating the word one last time, he would “write” the word with his finger on his hand. His parents, brother, grandfather, our school principal and I cheered when Tejas, one of the youngest competitors there, beat the 29 other district champions by correctly spelling brigand. And so he became one of approximately 280 spellers who would compete on the national stage. Little did we know at the time, but this would be the first of several years that he would have this opportunity. It was this first year that we were introduced to all that goes on during Bee Week.

Tejas was a wordsmith in every sense, as he would learn not only the spellings of words but also their language of origin, alternate pronunciations, synonyms, antonyms and various definitions.

For a lifelong bookworm like myself, having a student go to the Scripps National Spelling Bee is like a coach having an athlete in the Olympics. I was honored when Tejas’s parents, Srilantha Santhanagopalan and Muthusamy Jeevanantham, asked me to accompany them to go to the Bee at the Gaylord National Harbor Hotel near Washington, D.C. The event is typically held the last full week of May. The spellers and their families arrive on Sunday for a week’s worth of activities that begin with an orientation and then culminate in an awards banquet on Friday night. Spellers are alphabetized by state or country and then by their regional sponsor to determine the speller number that he or she is given. All spellers from Virginia, therefore, are near the end, and in 2014, Tejas was speller number 263.

Words With Friends

Bee Week is busy but exciting. At orientation, spellers receive generous gifts, a T-shirt, and an autograph book called the Bee Keeper that has each speller’s picture and profile information. Monday is a fun day, with excursions and events in the area. Spellers get to enjoy the camaraderie of others like themselves, and returning spellers revel in the opportunity to reunite with friends that they have been group chatting with since the previous year. After an assembly with Bee officials on Tuesday, spellers participate in the first round, which is a written preliminary test consisting of vocabulary and multiple-choice spelling questions. The results of this test often determine who will still remain on stage by Thursday night. (Only the top 10 will be seen by millions on TV, but sometimes there are more than 10 who make it successfully through all of the preliminary oral rounds. If there are more than 10 spellers left on stage at the conclusion of the final preliminary round, the judges will refer to the written test to determine who makes the finals.)

Mensan Deb Gribben joins her student Tejas Muthusamy in 2016, his third year as a National Spelling Bee finalist. Muthusamy will compete at the Bee again at the end of May, in his final year of eligibility.

Meanwhile, visitors like myself are compelled to look up upon arriving at the venue. They call it the Hall of Champions, and giant banners hang vertically from the ceiling all along the hallway, each dated and with the name and large photograph of that year’s winner. Visitors might even spot a now-adult champion. I saw George Thampy, who won in 2000, walking around. He was there to serve as a judge, like many past winners there to help run the competition. In fact, the official pronouncer, Dr. Jacques Bailey, was the 1980 champion. Additionally, the hall has areas for media covering the event and displays with numbered pictures of the current spellers.

It is here that I first meet up with Tejas and his family on Wednesday. With a small purple rock that I had given him for good luck tucked in the front pocket of his shirt, Tejas passed through security with the rest of us to the auditorium where the following rounds take place. The Bee is televised by ESPN, so there is a separate stage area for the commentators, but it is the large stage at the front of the room where Tejas heads, while the rest of us find our seats. Round 2 is held in the morning, and those remaining return in the afternoon for the third round.

Tejas participated in the Bee in 2014, 2015 and 2016, and all three years he sailed through Rounds 2 and 3. Round 2 consists of words the spellers were given previously to study, but Round 3 is when spellers begin to drop like flies, as they are given increasingly challenging words not on the study list. In 2016, Tejas confidently and correctly spelled rennet in Round 2 and thoracic in Round 3 using his tried-and-true methods that I first witnessed in 2014.

David Letterman: ‘Mmmmmmmm’

Over the course of three years, the Bee has changed how spellers progress to become among the coveted final group on Thursday night’s televised event. That first year, in 2014, Tejas’s mom and I said every prayer and rubbed all the lucky charms we had, hoping that he would make it to the final 12. That year and also the following year, the remaining spellers from Round 3 stayed on stage, and judges took scores from Tuesday’s written test to determine who qualified for one of the 50 possible semifinalist spots. That year, 45 moved on, including Tejas, but the semifinalist titles were removed — all announced were now finalists.

The biggest change since Tejas started participating happened last year. For his first two years, Round 4 was another written test that the semifinalists took on Wednesday evening. The results of this test would determine which of those still remaining on stage after the Thursday morning round would be one of the finalists. In 2014, I went with the family as handlers escorted us to a room where we could watch this round on a large screen. Dr. Bailey would read a vocabulary or spelling question, and spellers would choose the correct answer on a multiple-choice form in front of them. These spellers need to know not only the spelling of words but also their meanings. In 2016, this round was eliminated, so those moving on to Round 4 were finalists instead of semifinalists, with spellers battling the dictionary until 12 or fewer remained.

Maybe it was because it was new to us, but that first year the excitement was palpable. Many of the other contestants, year after year, are spellers returning for second, third and fourth attempts at the Bee, so expectations are high that they will place well in the rankings. Others, like Mensan Jacob Daniel Williamson, capture the hearts of viewers and have fans rooting for them to succeed. Tejas waited discreetly in the wings, with only family and our entire school community back home realizing his potential. We waited with bated breath as officials announced the names of those still on stage who had the top scores from the written test and would be finalists. When they announced Tejas’s name, we went berserk!

In fact, David Letterman used a clip of Sri and me in his monologue segment the following Monday. His show had doctored a tape of Tejas spelling a word, so it appeared as though Tejas had to spell Mmmmmmmm. Then it panned to us hugging each other and celebrating as though he had just won the whole thing. Relatives who saw the segment texted Tejas’s mom, asking who was that lady she was hugging instead of her family members sitting to her right. Finalists appearing on stage Thursday night have a busy day before the world watches them from home. First, if they have not already done so earlier in the week, they are interviewed and then escorted to a room with props for either photos or videos the Bee can use throughout the broadcast. After having some time to rest, relax and get changed, all finalists and their families are then treated to dinner before spellers get the “hair and makeup for TV” treatment. Dinner is quiet, with tense but excited families and seemingly calm spellers.

Bad Words

Once the competitors are called to appear on stage, the families are escorted through the backstage area and then out to reserved seats near the front of the packed auditorium and to the left of the central area used by Bee officials and media. This part of the competition is filmed live, so everything is timed like clockwork. Sitting with the family and surrounded by families of other finalists, I silently prayed for Tejas to get “good” words that he knew or could figure out based upon the origin of the word. A “bad” word would contain what is referred to as the dreaded schwa (could be an e, a or o) or have a derivation from an uncommon language such as Inuit. These words are tough, even for the most erudite linguist.

By 2016, Tejas was a certified celebrity at the Bee. Fellow contestants were clamoring for his autograph in their Bee Keepers, and he was mobbed by the press.

In 2014, Tejas made it all the way to eighth place, and in 2015, he placed seventh. Both years, he walked away with hefty prizes and a yearning to return. By 2016, he was a certified celebrity at the Bee. Fellow contestants were clamoring for his autograph in their Bee Keepers, and he, as well as 6-year-old Mensan Akash Vukoti, was mobbed by the press. The changes in the rules made the progression to the evening finals based a bit more on luck, depending upon the word given. In Tejas’s case, the written test given in previous years on Wednesday increased his odds as all contestants got the same words, and he excelled in the multiple-choice format, routinely getting a top score.

Unfortunately for Tejas in 2016, all of our good luck charms and prayers fell short when he was given the word salele (a fish) in Round 4. In a double whammy of bad luck, this was a Samoan word and contained the dreaded schwa. Tejas’s brother Shreyas, himself an adept speller, clasped his mouth in horror when he heard the word. We all knew that Tejas could spell every other word given to his fellow contestants, but this one stumped him. He knew the end had to be lele (similar to the word ukulele) but he struggled with the beginning — sa? se? so? After requesting that Dr. Bailey say it five times (so he could watch his mouth as he pronounced the word), Tejas narrowed it down to sa or so. Then the countdown timer signaled a warning that time was running out, and the hexagon lights above his head turned red, so he had to guess in a 50/50 shot, going with solele.

Everyone was stunned to hear the brass bell, signaling that the word had been misspelled. It was then that his peers and the entire audience rose to their feet in applause for Tejas. His father met him at the couch area, which some refer to as the crying couch, to the left of the stage, but Tejas, while disappointed, held his head high and knew there was no need for tears. He had accomplished what few others in the world could ever do — he had been a finalist in the Scripps National Spelling Bee not once, not twice but three years in a row!

And his reign is not over yet. In May, Tejas will be back for his fourth time (the last for which he is eligible) to compete for the championship title at the Scripp’s National Spelling Bee, which will air on June 1. Following him will be the documentary film crew that was there as he spelled the word florilegium to win his regional bee in March. Their documentary, Breaking the Bee, explores the stories behind the phenomenal success of spellers like Tejas who are of Indian American descent. Knowing that his years of hard work may combine with good luck to help him win, this Mensan will again be right there with Tejas and his family, proudly cheering from the audience as he demonstrates his amazing skills as a true master of words.