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Spelling bee drama is not kids' play

Speller Neetu Chandak of Seneca Falls, N.Y., is comforted by her parents, Sue and Mahesh, after she misspelled the word “derriengue” and was eliminated during round eight of the 2009 Scripps National Spelling Bee competition Thursday.

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Speller Neetu Chandak of Seneca Falls, N.Y., is comforted by her parents, Sue and Mahesh, after she misspelled the word “derriengue” and was eliminated during round eight of the 2009 Scripps National Spelling Bee competition Thursday.

Agrestic.

Hircocervus.

Imprimis.

Would you have spelled those words right?

Serena Skye Laine-Lobsinger did. That got the 13-year-old homeschooled eighth-grader from West Palm Beach airtime in prime-time Thursday night in the finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Laine-Lobsinger likes sewing, interior design and Monster energy drinks, and this year also had one of the coolest names in one of our culture's hottest annual happenings.

The semifinals were live on ESPN during the day. The two-hour finals played on ABC.

Spelling!

It's like reality TV. Only it's real. It's like sports. Only the characters are more human. They're kids.

"They haven't really developed grown-up inhibitions," James Maguire once said. A few years back, he wrote American Bee: The National Spelling Bee and the Culture of Word Nerds.

"So we see them breathe hard and sweat and get tense," he said.

Is it that they're so scary smart? Is it that so many of them are immigrants' kids? That the essential American story walks across that stage? Is it the braces? The acne? The unfortunate helmet hair? The high-riding, tightly belted khaki pants? Or is it the suspense that builds letter by letter with no second chances allowed?

It's probably all those things.

The bee started in 1925. It was closed to the public. Ha — not anymore. It was put on ESPN for the first time in 1994. People watched it so much the finals were put on at night on ABC starting in 2006. The network stopped showing the Miss America pageant the year before. Can you say geek chic?

The bee is no longer just the bee. The bee has become a show.

You could even bet on the bee at BetUS.com heading into Thursday's competition. The gender of the winner? The over-under on the length of the winning word? Would the winner wear glasses? Would one of the kids faint? It happened in '04, which is why the odds on Thursday were 3-1.

The number of contestants Thursday, already down from a record 293 at the beginning of the week in Washington, went from 41 in one round to 36 in the next, then 16, then 11 in the championship. It's like sports. The captivating qualities of ruthless winnowing: Only the very few can make it to the big leagues.

Characters emerge.

Little quick-hit quasi-profiles of the kids tell you who likes Legos, who plays the cello, who wants to make films when they're all grown up. They're like the human-interest features from the Olympics, tug at the heartstrings, set to violin.

They have, you start to notice, their endearing quirks. They don't know what to do with their hands. They hold the microphone. They hold the bottoms of their shirts. They cover their faces. They pump their fists. They sketch out the words on their palms. Laine-Lobsinger is a palm speller. And if they get the word wrong and hear that little ring of the bell that means the end of the road? They bite their lips. Strained smiles. Recognition. They pivot and scurry off stage.

One of the kids stopped before he spelled his word and took his glasses out of a case and put them on his face. They must have helped. He got it right.

Another one couldn't say his word — he had trouble with the "r" in pleurisy — but he spelled it okay.

You start to pick favorites.

Co-favorites Sidarth Chand from Michigan — whom ESPN took to calling "Super Sid" — and Kavya Shivashankar from Kansas spelled their way into the finals. Erin Andrews interviewed them backstage. You usually see the eye-candy blond on the sidelines of football fields. Here she was with two bright kids from Middle America.

She asked about their intense rivalry. They looked at her funny.

"It's not really intense like we don't like each other," Chand said.

"We're friends," Shivashankar said.

Andrews also talked to the finalist from the Sunshine State.

"I'm nervous and excited at the same time," Laine-Lobsinger told her. "I'm curious to see what's next."

Kids these days.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report, which used information from the Baltimore Sun, the Palm Beach Post and spellingbee.com. Michael Kruse can be reached at [email protected] or (727)893-8751.

The winner

Kavya Shivashankar wrote out every word on her palm and always ended with a smile. The 13-year-old Kansas girl saved the biggest smile for last, when she rattled off the letters to "Laodicean" — lukewarm or indifferent in religion or politics — to become the nation's spelling champion. She outlasted 11 finalists to win the 82nd Scripps National Spelling Bee.

Adjective gets her

Serena Skye Laine-Lobsinger was eliminated in the second round when she misspelled conchyliated, an adjective meaning obtained from mollusks.

Spelling bee drama is not kids' play 05/28/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 2, 2009 1:49pm]
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