I’m an atrocious speller. Always have been. There was a year in middle school when it became a running joke among my friends that I consistently got three of 10 words wrong on our weekly spelling quizzes. I’ve never really improved. If there is a homophone in anything I write, I will usually use the wrong spelling of the word. If I spell a word wrong, I will sometimes spell it wrong consistently throughout a piece. I file copy with names spelled in a variety of creative ways — even after I’ve gone back and double checked them.
It’s a terrible feeling when FrontBurner readers correct my misspellings in the comments, but it’s never as bad as when Wick used to text me an hour or so after I posted a piece to point out how I misspelled a word you might find on a fourth grader’s spelling exam. As someone who strings together words for a living, spelling is a continual source of frustration and shame. I’d say it is a running joke among my editors, but it has long ceased being very funny.
Which is all to say that I look at the kids who make it to final round of the Scripps National Spelling Bee as superheroes. They possess special powers that confound my experience of the world. If you’re not familiar with how talented these kids are — and the intensity of the competitive world of the national spelling bee — I suggest starting with the 2002 documentary Spellbound, which portrays the spelling bee as the wildly captivating spectator sport that it is. This year’s (remote) finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee take place tonight at 7 p.m. on ESPN 2.
Among the spelling superheroes who have survived to the final round of the tournament is a 12-year-old seventh grader from Wilson Middle School in Plano named Dhroov Bharatia. I could learn a lot from Bharatia. A few days ago, he described his spelling strategy to the Dallas Morning News. Some kids spend months or years studying dictionaries in their quest to win the national spelling title. Bharatia focuses on roots to determine the linguistic source of a given word and then uses his familiarity with languages to work out the correct spelling:
“That’s really how I study most of the difficult words,” he said. “It’s like a scene that’s blurry and the longer you look at it, it becomes more and more clear.”
For example, he said “sch” are common starting letters in the German language for words like “schnauzer” and “schadenfreude.” Dhroov uses the “sch” pattern for the base of the word and then asks for the definition to help remember the spelling.
He’s an avid reader, especially of the Harry Potter book series, where he read 650 pages of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in about six to seven hours.
“As I read more, I really became fascinated by the effects that words have and how they can describe even the most mundane aspects of the story,” he said.
Bharatia, an aspiring engineer, is one of 11 kids competing for top honors at the national bee. He has survived nine rounds so far. The word that got him through to the finals was “calamus,” a species of flowering plant which Bharatia no doubt recognized as deriving from the Greek word κάλαμος, or kálamos, meaning “reed” (thanks Wikipedia).
Among the finalists, there are four Texans, including 11-year-old Vivinsha Veduru from Fort Worth. Veduru is the youngest competitor to make it this far in the competition. Like Bharatia, she tries to recognize Latin and Greek origins of English words to work out their spelling. Her journey to the finals started after placing third at a bee at Texas Christian University when she was only 8, and she hopes to pursue a career in science, technology, engineering, or math.
Tune in tonight if you want to catch the high drama that is the National Spelling Bee finals — or if you simply want to see some talented kids showing of their powerful minds and reassuring the world that the future is in good hands. And please feel free to use the comments to correct any words I misspelled in this post.