Dorking out on the National Spelling Bee

13-year-old Kavya Shivashankar wins with a word I've never even heard before. Pass the Puffs already.

Published May 29, 2009 1:30PM (EDT)

One of the great feats of "Spellbound," the 2002 documentary about the Scripps National Spelling Bee, is that it transformed the hopelessly nerdy, quaint tournament into a nailbiting human-interest drama. Yes, the spelling bee is about knowing the order of the letters in such esoteric words as geusioleptic or menhir, but it's also about the American dream, the notion that hard work and discipline trump all else. In a visual age defined by flash, the contest is stubbornly fuddy-duddy, distinguished by little but the numbered signs slung around contestants' necks and the sound of that stinging bell to signal a word gone awry. But there was the spelling bee in the hot seat of ABC prime time on Thursday night, the lead-in to "Grey's Anatomy" (!) and hosted by "Dancing With the Stars'" Tom Bergeron (!) -- a big aspirational dorkfest about solving the challenging linguistic puzzles of the English language -- and if you are anything like me, then I hope you brought Kleenex.

No moment was sweeter or more moving, of course, than the winning one, in which 13-year-old Kavya Shivashankar spelled "Laodicean" -- "lukewarm, or indifferent in religion or politics," by the way, and also by the way, a word I'd never heard in my life -- and held that unwieldy trophy aloft in victory, her hands no longer free to wipe the tears that were pooling underneath her eyes. Her stoic, driven father had leapt from his seat to hug her, the adorable little sister clapped and jumped, beautiful weeping mom ran to her side -- etc. etc. You've seen this a million times before, folks. Now pass the Puffs already. (Video of the victory posted below.)

The violin-playing Kansas whiz was a favorite to win, this being her fourth time in the competition. (Her role model is Nupur Lala, the 1999 champion featured in "Spellbound.") Indian children have dominated the contest in the past 10 years; Shivashankar is the seventh out of the past 10 winners whose family comes from that country. And she pretty much slayed each word -- isagoge, ecossaise, baignoire. (I'm a competent speller, but in two hours, I only recognized about five words, including "neufchatel" and "tagliatelle," which I owe more to Whole Foods than to Websters.) As she dutifully asked for the language of origin, as she furiously ghost-wrote each word in her palm before pronouncing the letters, it seemed as though these formations were simply bubbling up to her from the ether and when she finally got to the last letter, she often flashed a confident smile, knowing she'd nailed it. Her father sat on the stage directly behind her, in the camera's periphery, so that you could watch him as she spelled, and at times he seemed assured to the point of distraction. As she laid out one tongue twister, he waved to someone in the audience.

It was hard not to fall for other contestants along the way, too -- Kennyi Aouad, a tall and easygoing kid from Indiana who offered the kind of comic mugging we've come to hope for in these contests, and I had a soft spot for third-place finisher Aishwarya Pastapur, whose fist-pumping and look of amazed relief following each correctly spelled word made each little victory that much more gratifying. And who didn't feel for second-place finisher Tim Ruiter, the lone white homeschooler in the bunch, who came so close only to fall out on Maecenas?

But Shivashankar was a natural. A total pro. You'll see her on morning talk shows and news segments for the next few days, flashing that brace-laced smile. When she grows up, she wants to be a neurosurgeon. And I bet you never heard anyone on "Dancing With the Stars" tell Tom Bergeron that.

Sorry to be a sap. I just can't be Laodicean about this thing.

By Sarah Hepola

Sarah Hepola is the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir, "Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget."

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