The Bee, in general, was a lot of fun. There were a lot of 'first' experiences for me -- Scripps does a great job of making Bee Week revolve around socialization and fellowship between the spellers. The Spelling Bee itself was only part of it. The traditional Memorial Day barbecue was probably my favorite part of the whole week. Of course, the organized tours were nice as well.
However, as I kept returning, it definitely did become more 'stressful' and less 'fun' each year. [In either '06 or '07, during the actual competition days, all I ate -- for ALL of the competition days -- was a bag of Doritos and a can of Coke. That's how stressed I was.] That's definitely a result of me growing up and the media paying so much attention to me, not because of anything Scripps did. The media actually made a lot of comparisons between me and famous quarterbacks -- Dan Marino especially. My personal favorite comparison was Tony Romo, not only because he's the Dallas Cowboys quarterback [go Cowboys!] but because I feel like his situation sort of mirrors my own. He came out of nowhere as an undrafted free agent that had been sitting on the bench for years to take the Cowboys into the playoffs for the first time in a while. I came out of nowhere at nine years old when I came in 3rd in '03. Like me, he was young and personable, and the media fell in love with him.
Well, over the next few years, Romo continued to do really well. But because of his early successes, the way he was viewed changed. No longer was he the 'miracle boy' who got a previously losing team into the playoffs. Now, the team wasn't doing as well as people expected. Romo was accused of "choking" when it counted, even though the team's problems didn't really have a lot to do with him [if your receivers drop balls, and your defense gives up 20+ yards a play, you could have any quarterback you wanted and still lose].
I can imagine how frustrating that must have been for him, because I had the same comparisons made about me -- "Samir's a great speller, but he can't win the big one."
The comparisons were similarly unfair because in the spelling bee, there are words you do know and words you won't -- in '05, '06, and '07, I knew every word in the Bee except for the ones I missed. Except I was a young boy of 11 or 12, and Romo was a grown adult. Having all this pressure on me to perform definitely affected my enjoyment of the bee. In the first three years, I was sort of just riding the wave, enjoying the experience and the attention and the success. Even in '04 when I went out in the 5th round, I wasn't too terribly disappointed. But in '06 and '07, I was under a tremendous amount of pressure -- from myself, from the media, from even my family and friends. As I'd grown up a bit, I was taking the whole Bee more seriously -- you can easily see my personality change from watching the '03 and '07 bees. Of course, there was also the sense of finality -- I only had one or two shots left now. In '07, after I missed on 'clevis' and met my dad in the comfort room, I was actually okay -- I'd gotten so fed up with the whole thing that I was just glad it was over. I desperately wanted to win, but at that point in time, I was honestly just relieved I'd never have to study spelling again. I didn't cry or anything, and went out and talked to the media... I think there were as many cameras pointed at me as there were pointed at the stage inside, because the 'favorite' had been knocked out, and this was big news. I was fine with that... I answered their questions honestly, and it was over. My dad later said he was proud of me for the mature way in which I'd handled those interviews.
But then I saw my mom. She was glaring at me, and I remember her saying something about how stupid a mistake I'd made. She had apparently filed some sort of appeal to try and get me reinstated. They said no, obviously, and it was over.
After that, I was definitely crying... not because I'd lost, but because my mother was disappointed in me. To be blunt, after that, the media was a piranha pack. They were asking me about the appeal, which I didn't even really know about. They followed us up the escalators [for reference: the Spelling Bee was held in like the 5th basement level of the Grand Hyatt, which was connected to the lobby by several sets of escalators.] Carolyn Andrews, the Bee's former word list manager, was nice enough to come with us and try to fend them off. The media people tried to follow my family and sponsor and I into the elevators, but Mrs. Andrews wouldn't let them in. She escorted us up to our room, then left. [To this day, I still appreciate that.]
A sidenote on luck of the draw: Knowing what I knew in '05, I easily would have made it farther in '04 or '03. I forget which year, but the eventual champion came up to me and told me they didn't know the word I'd missed either. Is it easy to whine about how it was so unfair that I got words I didn't know and didn't win? Yeah, it is. But then again, all spellers face that. No offense to the eventual winner, but I honestly think that Erik Zyman Carrasco was by far the best speller at the Bee in [I think] 2004. He got the word 'Gomorrah' in the 4th round, which was insanely difficult compared to any other word in the rest of the Bee. It was his last chance. Furthermore, I think back at my first year -- at the Regional Bee, in the final few rounds, they started giving us words that weren't in the Paideia. I was lucky enough to get words I knew. One girl got 'ibuprofen' [the NSAID having anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties used in over-the-counter painkillers like Advil. Ironically enough, ibuprofen liquigels are now the only type of painkillers that I will take, because acetaminophen doesn't agree with me.] which I didn't know at the time. So if I'd had her number, I would probably have missed 'ibuprofen' and never made it to my first NSB in 2003. It's hard to say what would have happened then -- maybe I would never have made it to Nationals, or even tried. I definitely wouldn't have become the 'media darling' that I did.
P.S. "Hooked On Monkey Fonics" is the homeschool and spelling-themed South Park episode that got me hooked on South Park and should be required watching for any parent thinking of entering their kid in a spelling bee.