Switching Roles – From Being a Speller to Being a Pronouncer

Posted on Posted in 2011

Stuti Mishra smiled in triumph. The Floridian had just been declared the 2011 North South Foundation (NSF) Senior Spelling Bee champion after having remained the only speller to have spelled her word correctly in Round 6 of the final phase. The word that Stuti orthographized to secure her win was ‘feretory’, a place for keeping an ornate coffin for the relics of a saint. Now, she stood beaming with a victory smile as everyone swarmed around her to congratulate her.

This event took place on September 3, 2011 at the San Jose State University (SJSU), where more than a hundred top notch spellers from across the country had converged for a national level contest hosted by North South Foundation (www.northsouth.org). NSF is a non-profit organization that has been in existence since 1989. Its two-fold mission is to provide financial aid to needy but scholarly students in India while concurrently encouraging academic excellence among Indian American children. The organization introduced spelling bees in 1994 with the intent of promoting vocabulary development among its participants and providing a source for the generation of funds to support the organization’s original mission of granting financial aid. A number of NSF spellers have ascended to acquire top ranks at the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Spellers such as Samir Patel, Neil Kadakia, Sai Gunturi, and Sameer Mishra are only a few examples of NSF participants for whom these competitions have served as a stepping stone. Furthermore, some NSF champions have ultimately won the coveted Scripps National Spelling Bee. The more recent champions include Anamika Veeramani, the 2009 NSF Senior Spelling Bee co-champion who claimed the Scripps title in 2010, and Sukanya Roy, the 2010 NSF Senior Spelling Bee champion who went on to hoist the 2011 Scripps National Spelling Bee trophy.

My family and I have a long history with NSF. We were first introduced to NSF in December of 2002, after one of our family friends informed us about a spelling bee competition conducted by the organization’s Kansas City Chapter. NSF has several regional chapters throughout the country which hold various educational contests annually. Contestants are required to register with the organization to gain entrance to the regional contests typically held in early spring. The regional scores are subsequently normalized across all regional chapters to identify the top performers, who are then invited to participate at the national competition. The national contests are generally held towards late summer / early fall.

I participated in my first NSF Spelling Bee (incidentally, also my first ever spelling bee) in the spring of 2003. The first year was a learning experience and I was not invited to the finals until the following year. In 2004, the national event was held in Phoenix, Arizona. By that time, NSF had reorganized spelling bees into two separate levels – Junior (Grade 3 and under) and Senior (Grades 4 to 8). That year, in 2004, I won the Junior National Spelling Bee Championship, my first national spelling bee title. This is how my odyssey began with NSF and spelling bees in general. After my very first NSF Bee, I was hooked. Since then I have not only become passionate about spelling bees, but I have also became an avid volunteer for NSF.

As a volunteer for NSF, I have pronounced at the regional spelling contests while assisting my dad in preparing for Spelling Bee Workshops, which we have conducted at many NSF centers across the country. However, my dad and I were eager to team up and take on a new challenge.

Our request to conduct the 2011 NSF National Senior Spelling Bee was submitted in form of a proposal – I would be the pronouncer and my dad the chief judge at this year’s national event. Lo and behold, our proposal, which also included the withdrawal of my sister Vanya’s invitation to participate the national event, was accepted. This was the juncture I had been waiting for. I had been looking out for these kinds of pursuits ever since I won the Scripps National Spelling Bee in 2009. I strongly felt that this was one way I could still remain close to my true passion – spelling!!! I thus feel such prospects will provide an avenue for me to share my knowledge and experience with the newer generation of spellers.

However, contestants at the national level are of very high caliber and many of these spellers are the same kids seen at the Scripps National Spelling Bee, National Math Counts, and National Geographic Bee. For that very reason, conducting the spelling bee at the Nationals was a major challenge that came with a lot of responsibilities.

As I began to prepare for my job, I recognized that many of the contestants were 2011 Scripps National Spelling Bee Finalists and Semi-Finalists. Chetan Reddy, Narahari Bharadwaj, Rahul Malayappan, Shriti Anant, Sivateja Tangirala, Siddharth Varanasi, Snigdha Nandipati, Sriram Hathwar, Stuti Mishra, Surabhi Iyer were just a few examples. I had met some of these stellar spellers at prior spelling competitions (back when I was still a speller), but many of them, I had watched on TV. More recently, spelling bees have become much more popular, and the level of competition has been steadily increasing. The next generation of spellers appears to be more prepared than their preceding generations. The sheer fact that the 2011 Scripps Finals had continued for a record 20 Rounds before Sukanya Roy was declared the winner, is a good indication of the growing competition.

After evaluating what this new generation of spellers was capable of, I knew my task was not going be an easy one. I needed to prepare a list of words for the third phase of the competition, the words’ pertinent information – pronunciations, part of speech, etymology and sentences. I also needed information regarding word stems. With the contest scheduled for September 3rd, I had just enough time to find words from the Merriam Webster Third International Dictionary (official source for most spelling bees). I first began with an enormous list of words, but after many rounds of self-review, the list had been trimmed down to its essentials. I had to look into homonyms, variants, and many other aspects of the words to crop the initial list to one appropriate for the high caliber of the spellers. By the time I had finished, I had come to the realization that preparing this list was more difficult than I had previously imagined. I was grateful this occurred during summer break, because the significant amount of time I spent in preparation was inevitable.

As Labor Day weekend approached, I grew more enthused. I was looking forward to seeing many of the spellers and assuming my new role as pronouncer. Yet I remained cognizant of the fact that it was a necessity for me to be on top due to the expertise and aptitude the new generation had previously displayed.

The day of the bee quickly became a frenzied flurry. As a competitor for so many years, I had never realized the amount of preparation that was required from the “other side.” All of the volunteers were hurriedly attending to last minute arrangements, yet concurrently executing their tasks with vigor, precision, and efficiency. The entire system including the dexterous group coordination greatly amazed me and I was proud to be one of the links in the intricate chain.

As I prepared the room for the arrival of the spellers and organized the papers, I couldn’t help but feel slightly anxious despite my excitement and anticipation. Would I be able to handle any hiccups and keep things running smoothly? What if I made an error in pronunciation? The contestants were top-notch spellers and this event had to be conducted with exceptional standards to meet the high expectations. I knew I had my dad to count on, yet that tiny tingle in the pit of my stomach could not be suppressed.

Soon spellers and parents began trooping into the room; the spellers earnestly sought their allocated seat (indicated by badge number) as the parents fussed over their children and made sure the students were comfortable and ready. As more and more spellers filled in, the excitement and tension in the room began to mount. I surveyed the competitors and their families with deep nostalgia. It wasn’t too long ago that I was the intense speller preparing myself for the long day ahead of me. I knew how all of the spellers felt and I strove to help the students feel at ease and to ensure that everyone was content.

After waiting for the last few straggling spellers who scurried in late, it was time to begin the first phase. Parents were dismissed from the room and the spellers began to fidget with apprehension. My dad proceeded to meticulously outline the competition rules and guidelines as he simultaneously attempted to keep the atmosphere lively in order to alleviate tensions. I supplied any additional pertinent information and wished the spellers luck. After confirming that all of the spellers, particularly the spellers seated at the far corners of the modest hall, could clearly hear my voice, I was set to begin.

I cleared my throat and began to pronounce. Immediately after I began dictating, the tingle in my stomach vanished. It didn’t matter that I was on the other side of the table. I was still doing what I loved to do – this time with the added bonus of helping others. And by the time I had settled into a diligent rhythm, I was thoroughly enjoying myself. Warmth spread throughout me as I fondly acknowledged that spelling bees are and will always remain a home to me. Before I knew it, Phase I was complete.

At the conclusion of the phase, my dad, with the invaluable help of the room guides, began directing groups of spellers to their designated Phase II rooms. I observed this developing scene with great interest. The spellers had assumed a variety of different expressions on their faces; the emotions ranged from slight despondency to growing anxiety to supreme confidence. Yet despite their individual worries, which they pushed aside for the time being, they turned to each other and struck up lively conversations. Before long, the previously tense room was filled with animated chatter and blithe laughter.

I had to rouse myself to remember the job at hand. I had momentarily lost myself in the spellers’ domain. During that time, the efficacious volunteers had already set everything up for Phase II. Phase II of the spelling bee is a fairly easy phase in comparison to the other two phases. All of the words asked during this phase are derived from the study list the spellers receive and study during the summer. Thus, the intent of this phase is to give the spellers a chance to come up to the microphone and spell comfortably. This phase passed with no hindrances whatsoever as the spellers relished their turns at the microphone. Parents were allowed to watch during Phase II, and they sat quietly cheering on their children.

The spellers’ scores from Phase I and II had to be enumerated and from those results, the finalists for Phase III would be determined. The process would take some time and consequently, the results were expected to be announced two hours later. From experience I know that this waiting period is a test of patience for the competitors and their families. The spellers and their families were free to do what they fancied and most rushed to eat lunch before the commencement of the third and final phase.

Soon the results were announced. The already bright and competitive field had been narrowed down to fourteen top scorers. Unsurprisingly, the finalists included many Scripps competitors. It was almost a rematch for these kids as well as another opportunity to display their talents on a national stage.

As people traipsed into the room, I glanced at the remaining contestants. I could tell that the spellers themselves were excited for the final rounds. There was an aura of keen enthusiasm enveloping their minor jitters. I was also thrilled to see that the auditorium was becoming packed. The fervor and zest of all of the contenders and their families was incredibly apparent as many eliminated spellers came back with their family members to watch the remainder of the bee.

When it came time to start the final and most challenging phase, I could see the spellers put on their game face. Just as he had before, my dad stood up to explain the rules. Only this time, he spoke to the audience members as well to ensure that they were aware of the rules and procedures, although there were a few major changes, most of the rules were standard, and the veteran spellers were already well acquainted with them.

One major “rule” we stressed pertained to word stems or word roots. For example, if the word ‘makroskelic’ was asked, the speller had the right to confirm the roots with the pronouncer. In this case, they would have to mention the Greek roots ‘makro’ meaning large and ‘skelos’ meaning leg. While this option helps the speller formulate the correct spelling, it requires a deeper knowledge of word roots (specifically Greek and Latin). A slight variation of the word root could be misleading and hence this option is not typically encouraged at most spelling bees. However, I personally feel that it is extremely beneficial for the spellers to be acquainted with roots, and I know from personal experience that this knowledge allows the spellers to improve their vocabulary. Therefore, my dad and I noted that we would allow the spellers to ask root word questions. I had previously ascertained that I would be ready to answer pertinent root word questions to the best of my knowledge.

And we were off! The first round of this third phase, a few contestants appeared a bit shaky, but they brushed it off as they focused on their given word. As the difficulty of the words increased, spellers began dropping out. The field narrowed and the competition grew more intense. There were times spellers wavered unsurely; some emerged triumphantly, while others dejectedly returned to their seats.

Soon only 3 spellers remained. I was having a great time. However, it was also disappointing to me, even as the pronouncer, to see amazing spellers misspell. As they asked questions, I would attempt to mentally urge them to ask for information that would lead them to the right track. The obvious absence of this improbable telepathy, however, resulted in me dejectedly providing the correct spelling and watching their expressions which, in many cases, were ones of dismayed comprehension. After Syamantak misspelled ‘oligidic’ and Narahari started ‘iruska’ with an ‘e’, Stuti was declared the champion.

I had an amazing time afterwards as well – talking to various spellers, parents and volunteers. The time I spent speaking with these earnest individuals was one of the most memorable aspects of this experience. I value the dedication and time everyone spends preparing for this momentous event!

Most of the top 10 rank holders are not eighth graders and I can predict with utmost confidence that we will see many of them in future spelling bees. I wish them the very best! I look forward to seeing these familiar faces at the Scripps National Spelling Bee and at the 2012 NSF National Spelling Bee as many of them will return to compete. My dad and I plan to continue to conduct the future NSF National Spelling Bees. I am already eager for next year!! This experience has left me with many valuable thoughts and cherished memories. I am very grateful to NSF for providing me with this remarkable opportunity.

— Kavya

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