Inside the nail-biting, humorous, hyper-competitive world of the Spelling Bee Championships, which has come for the first time in the UAE.
Dubai Spelling Bee semi-finals give pupils a spell in the limelight
The word was "xenogamy", and although he was confident, he wanted to take no chances.
"Can I have the definition please?" he asked.
Xenogamy, he was told, is the transfer of pollen from the anthers of one plant to the stigmas of another.
"X-E-N-O-G-A-M-Y," he said nervously, and with that, speller#38, Gabriel Palubiski, advanced to the next round.
The 13-year-old ninth grader at Deira International School was one of 166 schoolchildren who competed in the eight-hour semifinals of the first Dubai Spelling Bee, held on Friday at the Jumeirah Beach Hotel auditorium.
Gabriel, born in Japan to a British father and a Canadian mother, said that as a small boy the first word he had struggled to spell correctly was, curiously, his Polish surname. "It's a tricky one," he said.
That was before he had met his fellow contestants, whose names were certainly the most extraordinary words he was to encounter that day: Sreelakshni Pushpanadh, Sainetra Sridhar and Sriraagavi Ragothaman.
Sainetra and Sriraagavi, though from different schools, bonded backstage. Both sporting glasses and ponytails, the pair huddled in a corner and sympathised with each other about the hardest words.
"Oh, I hate 'Nietzschean'," said Sriraagavi, 11, a sixth-grade pupil at Dubai Modern High School. "It just doesn't make sense."
"What if I get that?" said Sainetra, 12, a seventh-grader at Delhi Private School. "I'm scared."
"Don't worry," Sriraagavi told her. "We are so getting into the final."
Unfortunately, however, both girls were eliminated. The two were part of an Indian contingent that dominated the competition: more than two-thirds of contestants were of Indian descent. There were 76 from Indian High School alone.
Compare this with Cambridge School, which had one representative: speller#165 Zhiying Kuan. The 12-year-old Malaysia-born sixth-grader, whose favourite word in the English language is "mnemonically - because it's fun to pronounce", breezed through the contest for a ticket to the finals, to be held at 10am on Saturday, at Ductac's Centrepoint Theatre in the Mall of the Emirates. The champion speller will take home Dh25,000.
Speller#80, Nakshatra Chakraborty, almost didn't make it to the tournament, after developing a cold the night before. Shortly before the start, his parents sneaked backstage to hand him a pill and a bottle of water.
On stage, luck favoured the sick 14-year-old when he was asked to spell "millennium".
"Weird, right?" commented the ninth grader from The Millennium School, shaking his head.
Not everyone had a good day. In five gruelling rounds, the contestants were eliminated one by one, leaving the stage with sighs, gasps and regret, until they had been whittled down from 166 to 55. The bee was structured around an unforgiving single-elimination principle, whereby any utterance of a wrong letter prompted the sharp ping of a bell, cueing one's exit.
Ten-year-old Aaron Diosta from Indian High School was the first speller of the day, and also its first casualty, after he misspelled "emaciation". After leaving the stage, the sixth-grader - who happened to be the youngest and shortest contestant - said: "It's OK. Maybe it's not meant to be."
First organised in Kentucky in 1925 by The Louisville Courier-Journal to promote "general interest among pupils in a dull subject", the spelling bee has since seen millions of children sacrificing gameplay and social activity for the hyper-competitive pursuit of untangling the chaos of the English language, with its silent letters, esoteric etymologies and confusing cognates. In the US, the bee is televised on the sports channel ESPN, where viewers revel in the orthographic marathon's nail-biting drama and peculiar humour, hanging on the contestants' every letter.
The event has inspired pop culture fare, such as the Broadway musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, the 2000 novel Bee Season and its 2005 film adaptation, as well as the 2002 documentary Spellbound, which featured one Indian contestant's father hiring 1,000 people in India to chant prayers during the bee, with the promise of food provisions should his child win.
The parents in Dubai's first cup were not that feverish, but most admitted to drilling their children to success. "This was a test for us, too," said Uma Subramanian, who supported her 13-year-old daughter Ishhita. "At home I sat beside her as she went through hundreds of words, to make sure she wouldn't fall asleep."
Some took a more hands-on approach. Sokhna Fall trained for weeks with her 11-year-old son Mouhammad Cisse Malick.
"I'm more nervous than he is," she said. "He told me on the way here, 'Mama, you have to relax'."
Fall, who moved from Senegal to the UAE a decade ago, teaches French at the Oxford School, where her son is a sixth-grader.
"I did more effort for this contest," Fall said. "I have an accent and don't speak English well, so I practised, so I can pronounce properly for him."
Mouhammad, speller#76, is off to Saturday's finals.
Speller#16, Angela Mamaril, an 11-year-old Filipina seventh grader at the International School of Choueifat, had an impressive start, but was eliminated in the last round. She said her recent free time had been spent studying. "Day and night. This is the hardest thing I've ever done," she said, rolling her eyes. "It was worth it."
By contrast, the day's last speller, Zoha Zahid, a 14-year-old ninth grader at Choueifat, was rather more laid-back. When asked seconds before taking her spot on stage if she was nervous, she replied: "Nope." After spelling "beneficiary" correctly and coming off the stage, the Pakistani girl said, "This is fun." She, too, is off to the finals.
The spirit of competition was evident in speller#126 Seyed Arshia Husam and speller#127 Seyed Arya Husam, 14-year-old identical twins in the ninth grade at Al Salam Private School. They admitted to going head to head with each other their entire lives, whether in school ("I'm smarter, but I don't finish my work, so he has higher marks," said Arshia), in computer games (unlike the other spellers, who studied intensely backstage, the two took turns playing Tekken on their shared PSP) or even in physical looks ("I'm the handsome one," said Arya).
When asked if they considered themselves fierce competitors, the brothers replied in unison: "Always." When they were asked if they are ever unkind to their three-year-old sole sister, they replied simultaneously, as if reading from a script: "No, she believes in us."
"Compared to other brothers, we're geniuses," said Arshia.
Unfortunately, we won't see more of the twins - they were eliminated in the third round.
The contestant with the most contagious energy that day was speller#18, Anthony Tahan, an eighth-grader at Choueifat. The Syrian boy, wearing thick, dapper spectacles and neon-blue trainers, playfully joked with his friends backstage, fiddling with their BlackBerrys and iPhones and listing hard-to-spell types of pasta ("gnocchi", "tagliatelle").
When he was called to the auditorium, the animated Anthony was suddenly out of character. Silent, he seemed tense as he walked on to the stage.
"J-U-D-I-C-I-O-U-S," he spelt correctly, then smiled a big smile and jumped off the stage. Minutes later, Anthony was back at it, cheerfully hopping backstage.
"Good spellers are not nerds," he said. "We're cool."
The 13-year-old said he had fallen in love with spelling at a young age. "When I was small, I could never ever spell the word 'successful' correctly," he said, his eyes twinkling. "So I kept writing it down, again and again, until I remembered it. That's how I learnt how to spell."
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