(Note: This is a story I wrote a long, long time ago. I have no details about the current Spelling Bee contest or training classes for it.)
It is a disease, 45-letters long, and Microsoft Word recognises it. When you ask 12-year-old Maitreya Khanapurkar about the word that gives him nightmares, he says, “pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanokoniosis”.
Maitreya, a student of Bandra’s Learners’ Academy loves watching the Spelling Bee competition on ESPN, and the glee on his face reveals just how excited he is to participate in the competition.
At the district level championship of the MaRRS International Spelling Bee, Maitreya is confident of taking on the world. But he will first have to beat 3,000 students from 50 city schools. The competition, in its second year, has been conducted in 18 states in India.
Dictionaries, spelling websites, crossword puzzles — the contestants have tried all methods to make sure they spell their words right. “Scrabble is my secret training tool,” whispers 10-year-old Tanay Bhatia.
Some say practice doesn’t help, reading does. Shivani Pandya of Maneckji Cooper who bagged the second prize at the district level competition, owes it to the Sherlock Holmes novels she reads. Her motivation also comes from the large number of participants of Indian origin at the US Scripps Spelling Bee. “Indian-Americans know all their spellings and watching them makes me proud,” she says.
The competition, which is being conducted in various cities, saw students of different age groups compete in large numbers. The competition comprises three rounds. “The first is a simple dictation round. The second demands that students rearrange jumbled alphabets to make sense of them, and the third is an oral test,” explains Mrunal Datar, organiser, MaRRS Spelling Bee.
Scattered around a hall at Vibgyor High School, Goregaon, are the participants of the competition. They listen attentively as the announcer pronounces the word. ‘Ooze’. “Gooze? Booze? What is the meaning ma’am? Is it the present tense?” ask inquisitive voices from the audience.
“There is too much noise and I can’t hear the words clearly,” says Aakriti Chaudhary. She writes the word, but quickly uses her pencil box to hide it from the wandering eyes of her neighbour.
“I have to decipher a word from the alphabets FSNORAMRT,” she says. She solves it in under a minute. “Transform is the word,” she says.
Just outside, parents wait impatiently for their children. “My daughter studied from a small handbook, which had around three hundred words in it. She was excited about the contest because it has all the excitement of a game in it,” says parent of nine-year-old Moha Tushar Walavalkar.
But what is it about a word that holds these children in its thrall. The answer may be found in a statement made by Richard Gere’s character, Saul, in the film Bee Season. Saul is explaining to his daughter the beauty of words, as she prepares for the National Spelling Bee competition.
“There are people who believe that letters are an expression of a special primal energy,” says Saul, “and when they combine to make words they hold the secrets of the universe.…”