Beeline: What Spelling Bees Reveal About Generation Z's New Path to Success by Shalini Shankar

Beeline: What Spelling Bees Reveal About Generation Z's New Path to Success by Shalini Shankar

Author:Shalini Shankar
Language: eng
Format: epub
Tags: sociology, nonfiction
Publisher: Basic Books
Published: 2019-04-29T04:00:00+00:00

Since 2011, the Scripps National Spelling Bee has been held at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland. Before that, it was at the Grand Hyatt Washington, DC, from 1996 through 2010, and at the Capital Hilton from 1980 through 1995. Prior to that, it was staged at various other hotels and auditoriums, including the National Press Building auditorium. During its early years, it was held at the National Museum of Natural History from 1925 through 1939. Planted on one end of the small, fabricated town of National Harbor, Maryland, the current home of the Bee contains several restaurants and shops within a large atrium. The convention center is on the mezzanine level of the structure, often housing several events simultaneously. An instructive sign directs those attending the spelling bee toward the correct hallway, but simply looking up could accomplish the same. Hanging from the rafters are banners of past winners, with their name, championship year, and winning word. These grayscale banners with blue and yellow accents—the National Spelling Bee colors—create a hall-of-champions effect from an otherwise generic convention center hallway.

In keeping with this scale is the cavernous Maryland Ballroom in which the competition is held. From the back, by the sound table and the ESPN sports desk, the stage is distant and small. Spellers onstage are tiny animated figures flanked by massive screens bearing their image. The audience chairs, dozens to each row, are arranged into sections and angled toward the stage. A middle aisle is blocked off so that the cameraperson can film without obstruction. Shortly after a champion is named, the room is reconfigured for a banquet honoring the finalists the following night. On Tuesday, the competition gets under way. Metal detectors and security personnel greet entrants to the ballroom. The bomb-sniffing dogs don’t arrive until the following evening, when the largest crowd is expected for the finals.

Despite its multiple uses, the space has its own distinct character for spellers, families, and those who attend annually. It is an echo chamber of memories, elation, and despair. It is a repository of anticipation and hope. Some spellers return annually to this space, optimistic that this could finally be their year. Even when the anxiety of spellers is palpable, their jitters are absorbed by the massive room, in which unamplified sounds are barely heard. Announcements from the judges signal that a competition round is about to begin, and the room becomes completely silent. Ten cameras are trained in several directions to capture the stage, speller, judges, and audience, including a jib camera that usually hovers but occasionally swoops through the room in a hawkish motion. Win or lose, just being on prime-time television for the live finals can be excitement enough for these young spellers.

My first year attending the Bee was 2013, its third year at the Gaylord. That year, like each subsequent one, I applied for and received a media badge, which allowed me to sit at tables reserved for journalists and others writing about the Bee.


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