The Year of the Bee

"I was hooked immediately," Blitz recalls. "I think there's such a natural drama built into the competition. Everyone tries to spell along with these extraordinary kids and, inevitably, fails."

Over the years, there have been many memorable moments. One of the most famous came courtesy of a 13-year-old, home-schooled, Brooklyn, N.Y., girl. Rebecca Sealfon exuberantly screamed out each letter of her winning word "euonym." Forever known as the "Euonym girl," Sealfon was splashed on the cover of the New York Daily News the day after her victory.

The National Spelling Bee was launched in 1925 by The Courier-Journal, the Louisville, Ky., newspaper. The originators of The Bee hoped to stimulate "general interest among pupils in a dull subject."

Obscure Words, Better TV

A quick look at the winning words over the years shows that the competition has become much more fierce and the number of spellers has quadrupled.

For instance, in 1930 only about 10 contestants competed. Today, 273 children -- ranging in age from 9 to 14, who have memorized dictionaries -- descend upon the capital. Back in 1930, Helen Jensen of Des Moines, Iowa, won by spelling "fracas." Last year, Tidmarsh won with "autochthonous" (originating from, or indigenous).

But it's not just competition that keeps the kids coming back.

Mallory Irwinsky, 14, returns this year after losing last year in the second round. And, like most of the other kids who compete, she said she enjoyed meeting the others.

"I set the goal of going to the National Spelling Bee in 2nd or 3rd grade," Irwinsky wrote in an e-mail. "Knowing I had reached my goal was awesome. I also met some wonderful girls from Ohio, Florida and Texas. We toured D.C. together and had so much fun."

Sightseeing, ice cream socials, barbecues and even a talent show are some of the behind-the-scenes activities that these overachieving children enjoy. There are also the prizes to look forward to. In 2004, Tidmarsh took home $12,000 cash, among other prizes. But what he is most appreciative of is the friendships he made.

"It's not just the spelling," Tidmarsh said, of what makes participating in The Bee so much fun. "There's a lot of time for social interaction, and it's nice to meet other kids who are smart and love to spell."

It's an event that is filled with tension, the agony of defeat and the silent satisfaction of victory as well as a few words you have never heard. Misspellings take quite a toll on the fierce, stone-faced competitors in little shoes.

"There is something so amazing about these kids who are as young as 9 years old and they are doing something that the average person can't," Magnus said. "The combination of these amazing kids and their skills and the drama of the event makes for some compelling television."

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