OXON HILL, Md. — The opening round of the Scripps National Spelling Bee on Tuesday had a rare bit of controversy.
Max Greenspan, a 13-year-old wild-card speller from Scottsdale, Arizona, was given “mot juste,” an on-the-nose French phrase meaning “the exact, appropriate word.”
He got through “m-o-t j-u-s-t.” Then he paused, for about five seconds. He looked down. Head judge Mary Brooks rang the bell that signifies a misspelled word. Stunned, Max walked to the side of the stage.
In an interview, Max said he paused because he was thinking about whether to add the “e.”
“Shouldn’t I have been given the two minutes? I thought that was how long you had to spell,” he said. “I think that was unfair. I never knew that was a rule, that you couldn’t stop in the middle of a word.”
He didn’t know it was a rule because it isn’t a rule. Upon review, the judges agreed that Brooks had rung the bell prematurely, and Max was reinstated. Only six spellers have been reinstated since 1998, when Scripps got rid of its appeal process.
“We could not definitively determine that he had given us a concrete signal that he was done,” Brooks said. “That was human error on our part. He could still be thinking, thinking, thinking. … If you’ve got any doubt, you’ve got to make the right decision.”
Max ended up hearing the bell twice on Tuesday, and there was no reprieve the second time, when he got “pseudologist” wrong.
This is the second year the bee has included wild-card entrants. Scripps started the wild-card program to provide a new path to the bee for skilled spellers who come from highly competitive regions. Last year’s champion, Karthik Nemmani, was a wild card, having lost at the county level to the girl he ended up beating for the title.
Wild-card spellers are required to have won only at the school level. Most spellers who qualify for nationals get in by winning a regional or even a state bee. While qualifiers have their expenses paid by sponsors, wild cards have to pay a $1,500 entry fee, plus travel, lodging and expenses. There’s even an additional $600 fee if wild cards choose not to stay at the onsite hotel.
For Karthik, the expense was worth it — he took home more than $40,000 in cash and prizes. But not every wild card is at Karthik’s level, and the addition of wild cards has changed the tenor of the opening round. Of the 44 spellers who got words wrong in the round, 25 were wild cards.
“The premise behind it is good. I think it could be improved in some ways,” former speller Sylvie Lamontagne said about the wild-card program, known as “RSVBee.” ”The amount of money that it costs to do RSVBee is unfair to kids who simply don’t have the money but who might have the talent.”
For the first round of onstage spelling, Scripps uses words from a study list spellers get in advance. Paige Kimble, the bee’s executive director, has in the past dismissed questions about whether the round should be more difficult, saying spellers have earned the opportunity to “shine” onstage.
Instead, the round now puts an uncomfortable spotlight on spellers who aren’t competitive, even if they paid to be there.
On his first chance at the microphone, 11-year-old Charles Fennell of Bloomfield, Connecticut, got the word “koto” and tried to put himself under some pressure.
“Do you mind if I wait until the light changes colors?” Charles asked.
Spellers get two minutes. When they have 45 seconds left, the light above them turns yellow, and with 30 seconds remaining, it turns red.
“Be careful with your time,” pronouncer Jacques Bailly said.
“I just want to see it,” Charles said. “Can’t you change it faster?”
Then he gave up. “OK, I’ll just spell it,” he said.
In an interview, Charles insisted his decision to wait on the light was spontaneous.
“I’ve never been to nationals before, and I want to experience it all, including the light changing colors,” Charles said.
But the excitement of the moment was too much for him.
“I’m impatient, so I couldn’t wait that long,” he said. “If I’d gotten a longer word like ‘authoritarianism,’ I at least could have seen the yellow light.”
Later in the round, Quinn Meadows actually got “authoritarianism,” and he zoomed through it. Charles, meanwhile, was developing a strategy for the next round.
“Ask for all the information,” Charles said, “at least twice.”
He stuck to that plan. Charles got another short word, “ginko,” in the second round, and stalled his way through it, getting Bailly to repeat the language of origin and use it in a sentence twice. When the light turned yellow, he turned around and looked at it with apparent satisfaction before spelling the word correctly.