Sunday, June 3, 2012

YOUR JOURNEY IS JUST BEGINNING: It's all over now; the spellers have returned home after Friday's Speller Prom (at least, that's what I'm calling it). Scott Isaacs, who won the 1989 Scripps National Spelling Bee, has been commenting here for the past few years as Uncle Spike; this year, in response to a Craigslist ad, he became a coach, and he was generous enough to share this story with all of us:
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To start off, Adam already posted a link to my blog, containing a poem written in honor of Dr. Bailly’s immediate pronouncing predecessor, Dr. Alex Cameron. But my post also illustrates, from a coach’s perspective, some of the angst that was going through my head as this year’s bee began. Check it out for the full story before reading on.

Without being overly effusive, I have to say that coaching Frank Cahill to his success in the National Spelling Bee has been a delight the entire way through. For a first-time coach like me, Frank was about as ideal a protégé as you could hope for. Unerringly polite, friendly, inquisitive, incredibly intelligent, and always willing to learn more…these are the qualities that make coaching sessions that last for hours seems to zoom by in a matter of minutes. But outside of our study sessions, Frank was astoundingly diligent. I thought I was wowing people back in 1989, saying I studied 3 hours a night prior to my victory in DC, and even studied up to 8 hours a few weekends here and there. Nowadays, that’s merely a good start. Frank willingly and gladly put in up to 12 hours a day on the weekends in the months leading up to nationals. He sacrificed his winter and spring breaks so he could concentrate on studying every day. And during our last month, we would meet twice, sometimes three times a week for 3-4 hours at a time, going over lists of up to 500 increasingly arcane words that I had forwarded to him sometimes no more than 36 hours prior to meeting.

Frank never needed much in the way of encouragement, but I still wanted to get him better acquainted with “bee culture.” So when we started, I recommended that his family pick up Spellbound and Akeelah and the Bee, just to keep their appetites whetted. (I don’t know how often they have watched these movies, but it may be in excess of 20 times each.) And, of course, a copy of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (with access to the online website) was imperative from the very beginning.

For me, coaching took the form of hours of organization. I compiled word lists from previous copies of Words of the Champions (the predecessor to Paideia and Spell It…a list of roughly 1100 words to be used in local, district, and regional bees). I added in word lists reserved for regional and state bees. But beyond that, I took words from wherever I found them. While at an Italian restaurant, I’d note “puttanesca.” At Home Depot, “heuchera” and “sansevieria” entered the lists. Even a framed picture of a tea plant nearly directly above Frank’s study cubicle at his dad’s office became fodder, containing the word “camellia.” I also had to make sure we reviewed words regularly, with my goal to cover each word we studied at least twice; in some cases, we may have gone over words four or five times.

And suffice it to say that we went over Latin and Greek roots…literally by the hundreds. We also looked at spelling rules and patterns for different languages. From Scott Remer’s book Words of Wisdom, we explored the world of rules and trends from a multitude of languages…everything from Latin and Greek to Maori and Sanskrit. (It is a personal point of pride that if Frank had received the Maori word “kahikatea,” he would have nailed it, since we had just reviewed Maori two weeks prior to the bee; alas, another speller was felled by that skullbuster.)

I think that a lot of spelling bee preparation misses out on one significant detail: the psychological aspect. Sure, you can rattle off words, no problem, but how do you do it in front of a crowd of people with all eyes on you, lights glaring in your eyes, a bell-ringer ready to go to town at the slightest hint of a mistake, all while trying to figure out a word you don’t know when you first hear it? And isn’t that what most people talk about when they talk about spelling bees: the stress? I’ve seen great spellers falter and disintegrate the instant they get a word they don’t recognize. And I didn’t want that to happen to Frank. So we started holding mock bees. I bought the dreaded bell, Frank’s dad and sister became the audience, we shone lights in his face, and I did everything to make these bees as realistic as I could – even aping some of Dr. Bailly’s expressions and limiting time on words to 2 minutes. Frank was, of course, frightened during the first mock bee, but as time went on, he warmed up to them and became more confident. It didn’t take long until these mock bees became his favorite part of our study sessions. And I feel a bit of pride (again),knowing that because of these mock bees, Frank got a reputation in Washington for his cool, calm, and polite demeanor on stage while becoming a master word sleuth.

As Frank progressed over the months, I noticed, with some embarrassment, a new development. He was beginning to correct my pronunciations of words I thought I had known so well. It also made me smile, since I had often been the one to correct my teachers and parents whenever they mispronounced a word for me. It was a great sign that he was really becoming not just an adept speller, but becoming thoroughly comfortable with the words.

I really wish I could say that I was writing this post from the point of view of a coach whose speller has been crowned the national champion. Frank told me upon achieving nationals that he would be happy with making it to the semifinals, while the finals would be simply amazing. But his ambition and accomplishments said otherwise. Coming out of the preliminaries, he had a combined score of 30/31, with only Vanya Shivashankar having a higher score. (I don’t know who, if anyone, tied with him; Scripps does not give out this information.) His written test score was so high he could have missed both his first oral round words and still made it into the semifinals. He also mentioned to me that he knew all but five words during the semifinals, and seemed very comfortable onstage the entire time.

But Frank got slapped by the bee fiercely this year. Canadian Veronica Penny did not make it to the national bee this year because she knew every letter of every word given in the CanSpell bee, except for the one word she missed – by one letter. Frank had the exact same experience with the finals: he knew every last word but one, and missed “porwigle” by one letter – an extraneous “g.” He felt disappointed after missing his word, but his disappointment grew into outright dejection as he heard the remainder of the words. We began looking across at each other, rolling our eyes as “chatoyant,” “quattrocento,” and “saccharolytic” came up. It was abject torture; each word was a further twist of the knife into his heart, knowing that but for the sake of one errant, random, inscrutable word, that trophy could have been his. Unfortunately, such is the cruel nature of the bee.

But to end on a positive note, there’s no question that Frank has emerged from the past year a more confident, able-minded, well-rounded young man, meeting and exceeding goals he had barely imagined a year ago. Scripps dictates that the bee’s purpose is “to help students improve their spelling, increase their vocabularies, learn concepts, and develop correct English usage that will help them all their lives.” It was my goal to lay the groundwork for more practical skills in conjunction with the bee’s purpose: to train Frank to think on his feet under pressure, improve his deductive abilities, develop a compelling passion for success, and work toward that success. Considering that Frank could have taken the national title, and done it with grace, poise, and humility, I believe that both goals were accomplished. Assuming I move forward with coaching for the 2013 bee, those will continue to be my goals.

Now that the National Spelling Bee is over, we have 278 spellers leaving Washington, packing up their word lists, and certain to experience a bit of an emotional letdown after such an exciting week. George Thampy, the 2000 champion, had some sage advice for spellers in 2010 that will ring true for years to come: “Your journey is just beginning. When you are at home in the coming days and weeks, reflect on your passions and what makes you tick. Then pursue them with the enthusiasm and the passion that you have proven you are capable of.” Amen.


  1. janet4:08 PM

    Thank you for sharing this enlightening glimpse into the bee world! As someone who coaches and prepares young people for performances, I can relate to many of your experiences, challenges, and joys. Thanks, also, to Frank and his family for allowing you to share their story with us.

    These insider posts from people who are really good at what they do in such diverse areas of interest are one of the main reasons I enjoy the ALOTT5MA blog and community.

  2. Cliff7:12 PM

    Thanks for writing this reflection! I'd love to see some of the "aping some of Dr. Bailly’s expressions" lol! He always seems to just have a poker face. Were freddo (round 4), stannum (4), survigrous (4), Schwyzer (5), atopin (5), polos (5), cheyney (6), ammocoetes (6), and tirthankara (6) any of the hard words from the semifinals?

  3. Cliff7:40 PM

    Oh also, as far as making history at the bee, Steele said this was the first year a speller from New Hampshire made it to the finals. It's the 9th smallest state in terms of pop, is this really the first time someone from NH made it to primetime?

  4. Adam C.8:26 PM

    Great piece, and congratulations on all that you and Frank accomplished.  He seems, from what we saw on TV and from your account, like a terrific kid who has perspective, and I wish him much post-Bee success. And Scott, best wishes for your own successes in the coaching game.

  5. Uncle Spike1:42 AM

    Cliff: everyone's take on what words were the hardest from the semifinals will differ. I agree that Schwyzer, tirthankara, polos, ammocoetes, and cheyney were quite tough, along with the aforementioned kahikatea (that "h" is silent). I don't consider freddo that tough (Italian often favors double consonants), nor stannum (common term for tin; the abbreviation on the periodic table is even Sn). Survigrous can be deduced with roots, and atopin can be tricky but also deducible. This might be the first year NH made it to primetime, but I don't know...I don't usually keep track of those things.

    Adam: thanks for letting me post!

  6. Samir Patel7:28 PM

    <span>"his disappointment grew into outright dejection as he heard the remainder of the words"</span>

    While word difficulty is subjective [see our differences of opinion with Cliff], I think that's one of the hardest parts about the NSB for spellers to deal with.  In 2005, I knew every word asked in the oral rounds besides "Roscian."  In 2006, I knew every one except "eremacausis."  In 2007, I literally knew all the words [I got a perfect written score that year, and I'm pretty sure I did that the year before as well] but I just blanked and screwed up on clevis.  And it's more than a little frustrating [especially at 12/13/14] to see other spellers coast by on simple words.  [Saccharolytic in particular was bizarrely easy for the championship rounds.]

    Regardless, it's important to keep in mind that in twenty years, the NSB will be just one small part of Frank's "childhood."  [Quotation marks because I think he's a little too advanced/mature to really classify as a child.]  Regardless of his exact placing, I'm still blown away by his stellar performance, especially given that it was his first year.  If the students you coach in the future are half as dedicated and mature as Frank, they'll experience phenomenal success not only in the NSB, but throughout their academic and professional careers as well.

  7. Samir Patel7:28 PM

    I really enjoyed reading this.  Thanks for taking the time to write it.

  8. Uncle Spike9:38 PM

    Oops! I thought something was wrong! It's atopen, not atopin.