When asked about their guilty pleasures (one of those fallback women’s magazine interview questions), most people tend to give answers that fall into the “chocolate” or “nachos” or “Desperate Housewives” categories. Mine is spelling bees. Clearly I didn’t get enough of them, growing up in England—I had no idea they were a regular thing (as opposed to a Christmas-type parlor game) until many years later, after I’d moved to the United States (this year’s big Scripps National Bee is in its final rounds as I’m writing this piece). But I never thought I’d get to compete in one myself, and my kids’ schools didn’t seem to go in for them, so I didn’t even get V-I-C-A-R-I-O-U-S thrills. Then I discovered the Williamsburg Spelling Bee.
The bee is held every two weeks (except that it’s about to go on a six-month hiatus and switch to a monthly schedule in 2012) in the M-I-N-U-S-C-U-L-E, low-ceilinged back room of Pete’s Candy Store, a pleasantly scruffy bar on a non-hip block of hipstersville Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Apparently bands play there when spelling bees are not being held—the room is lined with hideous brown fiberglass soundproofing panels—though I can’t imagine what kind of a musical experience the tiny space produces. As a matter of fact, Bobby Blue, the bee’s founder, is a musician himself (with a day job selling Danish modern furniture in Dumbo, my neighborhood) and the composer and performer, with his co-spelling-master, Jennifer Dziura, of the rather adorable bee signature song. Normally the two sing this to signal the start of every bee, but last Monday they must have been short of time and it was skipped.
A kinder, gentler bee
Bobby is the laid-back, good-cop half of the spelling duo—he snaps people’s pictures as they come up to the little stage, hands them consolation cookies and squeezes a pink-and-red bicycle horn to mark the next competitor’s turn. He gave up competing in bees himself in elementary school in Bedford, Indiana, when he was in third grade and flubbed on rebel, though he knew how to spell it perfectly well (something that happens surprisingly often in bees, whatever your age). Jennifer isn’t actually a bad cop—she’s quite kind, really—but she has a brisk, schoolteacherish way of cutting off a speller who’s gone wrong (“and that’s TWO s’s in vichyssoise!”) She’s the resident nerd—her day job is coaching kids for their SATs—and after hours she’s a standup comic with a rather cerebral shtick.
Still, the atmosphere—lubricated with beer (though evidently spellers don’t drink as much as band audiences) and made less brutal by a three-lives policy (so you can get two words wrong and still be in)—is friendly and the audience is absurdly generous, clapping V-O-C-I-F-E-R-O-U-S-L-Y even for rather easy words like skedaddle and cosmopolite (or proboscis, which was my round-one word the other night). The prizes are of the $15 bar tab variety, so it’s really all about the, er, glory and the chance to go on to the finals (anyone who places first, second or third at one of the regular bees is eligible). Not surprisingly, given its Williamsburg venue, most of the audience consists of groups of artfully casual twenty- and thirty-somethings with lots of Converse hightops, heavily ironic horn-rimmed glasses and a great variety of facial hair (among the guys). One girl was wearing a garment that looked like an absolute sack to me—Bobby said, “Oh, I love your dress! Vintage Sassoon [or some such—I thought he was a hairdresser]!” I always feel very old there—and this time I felt even older, as there were actual children among the contestants. New York, unlike some less enlightened states, allows kids to hang out in bars as long as they’re accompanied by a parent (and don’t try to order beers).
The children were both boys—Jason, a cute, toothy 10-year-old (or so) who looked younger and smaller than his age, and Noam, who was 15, stocky and uncomfortable with meeting a direct glance. I had a feeling he might have done spelling bees before; kids age out early in the big-time competitions—the cutoff for the national bee is eighth grade. He ripped through his first-round word, prosaical, at high speed and staring straight out over the heads of the crowd, and repeated the performance in his second round with flawless renderings of rhinoceros (admittedly an easy one), immiscible and enceinte (even though I felt mildly tempted to criticize Jennifer’s pronunciation of that one). Jason, in contrast, bounced up to the microphone smiling, made a complete mess of philosophize (I don’t think he quite knew it as a word) and smiled all the way back to his chair, a testament to sturdy self-esteem. At his age I would have dissolved! His parents were unflinchingly positive (so much more supportive than I would have been!), even his mom, who was clearly the wannabe spelling nerd of the family (Dad fell out in the second round, victim of the triple threat of obstreperous, ratatouille and trichinosis).
Turning up the heat
The difficulty level at the Williamsburg bee is ratcheted up in the three-words-per-contestant second round (there are only three rounds altogether) in order to weed out the amateurs, though this evening things were a little gentle and a lot of people survived (if minus a couple of lives) to the final stretch. I think it’s rather hard to practice for spelling bees—you can be floored by a four-letter word if you’ve never seen it before—but, going on the second-round word choice, I’d advise people trying to practice to work on medical terms, a favorite bee fallback (ours included duodenitis, septicemia, nephrectomy) as well as math and science (molybdenum, coulomb, hypotenuse) and foreign words, especially French—no one who’s ever worked at a women’s magazine is likely to get potpourri and cassoulet wrong, but those two, as well as the aforementioned ratatouille and vichyssoise, all fooled spellers on Monday.
By the final round it was pretty clear to everyone that Noam, the slightly spectrum-y shy 15-year-old, was going to wipe the floor with us, which he duly proceeded to do, rattling accurately through his spellings at the same terrifying speed and finally going down on something French, I think (my word memory gets vague when I’m under stress and can’t take notes). I lost my third life on some horrible Scottish dialect word for devil—”deevilick,” for heaven’s sake (I had to look it up here)—and had to sit through a rather nail-biting procession of those remaining, only to be called up again because a nice girl with a blond updo named Amanda (she wins the bee all the time) and I had tied for second place and had to do a spell-off to decide it (we all knew who must have come in first). After a couple of turns of impossible words that we both flubbed, I got olid (I think it means “oily”) and had to pray that it had only one l. Phew.
It was over. Noam, eyes still cast down, accepted his bar tab prize shyly. “I didn’t think I could beat you,” he told me sincerely though rather unconvincingly. Jason, the bouncy 10-year-old (apparently he’s also a cellist and has played Charlie in Willie Wonka off-Broadway!), smiled sweetly at me and said, “That was great! I was surprised you did it.”