Friday, June 2, 2006

Katharine “Kerry” Close, a 13-year-old 8th-grader from Asbury Park, New Jersey, spelled “ursprache“, a word for the ancestor of a language or language group, to win the 79th annual Scripps National Spelling Bee on Thursday night. Close beat out 274 other contestants from 9 to 15 years old. This was Close’s last year of eligibility; she was one of only two contestants this year to be in her fifth year at the national competition. She finished seventh in 2005, having gotten a better ranking every year she’s competed.

This is the Bee’s first appearance on network television, with the finals airing on ABC; earlier rounds were televised in the afternoon on ESPN. Close, who enjoys running, music, reading, and her puppy, is the first New Jersey resident ever to win the competition, which she prepared for up to two hours each day.

Saryn Hooks, 14, was nearly eliminated in the eighth round, with “hechsher”, a symbol indicating that a food has been certified kosher. The judges mistakenly had the word down as “hechscher”; after being removed, she was reinstated in the next round after the judges received the correction. Hooks, who spent six months reading the entire dictionary to prepare, came back with confidence and finished in third place, missing “icteritious” in round twelve. This is the first time the judges have made such a visible error in the televised broadcast.

Kendra Yoshinaga, 12, of Thousand Oaks, California, a favorite for the finals, was knocked out in the seventh round just before the ABC broadcast began by “cointise”, a scarf worn on a lady’s headdress. Yoshinaga said that this third national bee she’s competed in felt “a lot more rigid” than the previous two.

This year’s schedule was rearranged for the ABC news broadcast: previous championships have been held earlier in the day. The spellers have all been given more media attention; for this reason Yoshinaga is perhaps one of the few who didn’t want to win, claiming that it would be too much. She has already received her share of attention, as co-author of The Spelling Bee And Me: A Real-Life Adventure In Learning, a children’s book about her experiences.

“People I don’t know very well seem to make a big deal about it, but my really close friends know that it’s not a really huge part of my life,” she says, of her relative fame. Keenly interested in politics and social issues, Yoshinaga spent a large portion of her last two trips sightseeing in Washington, but this trip, she says, has been more focused on studying.

“My mom sometimes finds words for me from books and magazines,” says the homeschooler, who studied over 30,000 words in the week preceding the national bee. Paige Kimble, bee coordinator, wouldn’t have been surprised to see her break into the top ten.

Another favorite eliminated earlier on in the competition was Samir Patel, who tied for second in last year’s 19-round marathon and placed third in 2003. Patel misspelled “eremacausis” in round 7, joining Yoshinaga and 6 others in a tie for 14th place.

The studious 12-year-old has one more chance at the national finals; Yoshinaga has two, as students may compete from their fourth through eighth grade years.

Cody Boisclair, a 23-year-old graduate student at the University of Georgia, misses the competition. He competed in the 1997 and 1998 finals, placing fourth in his second try. The Bee has changed since he began participating, becoming more international, and with increased media attention putting more pressure on spellers. Though many critics claim that the rote memorization and drilling of spelling bees is not a particularly beneficial activity, Boisclair believes his experience in the bee helped his knowledge of language rather than serving as a simple display of memory.

“I was one of those people who tried to dissect the word into its component parts, to find similarities to other words that I was familiar with,” says Boisclair, who began reading at the age of two. “Although I did do some drilling, I tried to find relationships to help me remember words, and even tried to analyze the words I was studying as I studied them.” His analysis skills led him not to a career in lexicography or linguistics but rather to graduate study in computer science.

Boisclair, who spent the evening watching the Bee on television while in a chat room with several other former national finalists, looks back on the competition as one of the highlights of his school years. “I think the best thing about it was a sense of camaraderie—for once, I really felt like I fit in somewhere. I was with people my age who were, by and large, ‘on the same wavelength’.” Also, Jasmine Kaneshiro, 14, from Honolulu, Hawaii, was not a favorite, having done quite badly last year, did better. She moved up from 72nd place in the 2005 bee to 45th place. It was her second year. “I’m pleased with my performance this year,” Kaneshiro said.