Interview: Bright Lights, Big Words

March 01, 2003 6 min read
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Independent filmmaker Jeffrey Blitz finds drama in the discipline of kids competing at the National Spelling Bee.

Not many adults would recognize this word, let alone know how to spell it. But last May, it was the one thing that 13-year-old Pratyush Buddiga, a 7th grader from Mountain Ridge Middle School in Colorado Springs, Colorado, needed to know to win the $12,000 top prize in the 75th annual Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee. Under the hot lights, after three days and 11 rounds of spelling aloud, Buddiga drew a deep breath and said, “p-r-o-s-p-i-c-i-e-n-c- e.” With these letters, meaning “foresight,” he won.

Filmmaker Jeffrey Blitz can attest that competitions for kids don’t get much hotter than this. His Oscar-nominated documentary, Spellbound, is a nail-biting, play-by- play account of eight kids trying their luck at the 1999 spelling bee.

Blitz first stumbled upon the competition during a live broadcast of the 1997 finals on ESPN and was riveted. Then a film student at the University of Southern California, he’d been looking for a documentary subject that would allow him to tell a broad story about America, and he realized he could do that with the bee as his backdrop. Blitz was also drawn to the event’s word play for personal reasons. The 34-year-old has wrestled with a stuttering problem all his life, at times passing for what he calls “fluent,” and at other times struggling to speak.

Teacher Magazine reached Blitz at home in Los Angeles, where he was putting the finishing touches on his film in preparation for its national release in May and subsequent airing on an HBO channel.

Q. Were you a good speller in grade school?

A. I was an average speller in grade school. Because I grew up with a significant stuttering problem, I have always been fascinated, not with spelling per se, but with words and language. I remember giving thought to word origins, to the nature of sounds, to the difference between spoken language and written language at a very young age. I suspect that many young stutterers consider such heady questions out of necessity.

Q. What is the National Spelling Bee like?

A. In a word, intense. Before I saw the bee for the first time, I imagined it as a kind of charming relic of a bygone era. I imagined it stood for an antique way of thinking about education, that one’s intelligence—or really, one’s character—could be judged by aptitude for spelling. But I was absolutely wrong. The bee is a very modern academic competition. The spellers are tested on words of every imaginable origin. Some are dusty old English words; some are recent additions borrowed from immigrant languages. In addition to massive memorization, the great spellers learn about language origins and root words. They study foreign languages and sometimes even the history of language. And then all that knowledge gets put under the spotlight at the national bee. Thousands of people look on, tons of national press capture every moment on stage. Spellers feel great pressure, but when they succeed, they feel a terrific sense of accomplishment. The other thing that’s wonderful about the bee is that it’s perhaps the most inclusive kind of competition out there.

It’s truly reflective of America. Every kind of background—racial, socioeconomic, educational—is represented.

Q. How did you find the eight kids the film focuses on?

A. Great sleuthing. During the end of 1998, I researched which spellers had done well at the ’98 bee and which were likely to repeat in 1999. This wasn’t simple work. The bee has a certain randomness to it: If a speller gets lucky, he or she can get into the later rounds without really being as well-trained as the majority of spellers [in] the later rounds. So I had to look at the word list from 1998 and judge whether I thought a speller who had survived late had been given really challenging words to spell. That produced a list of about 30.

I started in this way because I believed that to work as a documentary, we needed to have spellers who survived at least fairly late into the bee. Otherwise, our audience wouldn’t have familiar subjects to follow. But the criteria didn’t boil down to who might go far. We wanted really compelling and varied personal stories. Our goal, after all, was a big American story. So from the 30, we culled it down to about eight. Then, at the Nationals, we picked up a few others’ stories to follow. And in the end we chose.

Q. What kinds of kids are attracted to spelling competitions?

A. If there’s one generally consistent trait, it’s determination. The kids who do well are kids who undertake big, intimidating projects on their own and commit serious time to study. There’s no unifying strand beyond that, though. Some kids are extroverts, some introverts. Some come from old American families, some are first-generation. Some are athletes, some bookworms. But all are driven.

Q. In the film, one spectator tells a participant’s mother that the spelling bee is “a form of child abuse.” Do you agree?

A. I strongly disagree. I think that sometimes parents and kids can get caught up in the competition and lose sight of the personal achievements that are available to all the kids who compete. But that’s not the typical response. As long as the interest in competing in the bee is coming from the spellers, it’s a wonderful opportunity. It’s the rare case when parents are pushy or when the kids lose sight of why they’re in it that it takes on a darker shading. But that’s not specific to the bee. That can happen in any childhood activity that’s taken too far. And the national bee, while it doesn’t shy from the competition, also does a great job of making all the spellers feel like champions, regardless of how well they do.

Q. Did making this film give you any strong opinions about how children should be educated? For example, have you come away from the experience believing that kids should be pushed more—or less—than they generally are in school?

A. When we lived in New York, I attended the Corlears School, a very progressive school that had a Montessori feel without actually being one. There was no homework, only self-discovered activities. Until I made Spellbound, I was a real advocate for the Montessori approach. Making it, I discovered to my amazement that in certain cases, having real structure was a great thing for kids. Sometimes, strict discipline was welcome and helpful.

I traveled to many different kinds of schools—public, private, Montessori, Catholic, homeschool— [and] I realized that the kind of school was less important than the active involvement and engagement of teachers and parents. That’s not to say that it boiled down solely to that; I think that the better-funded schools had many more opportunities for children. But time and again, parent and/or teacher involvement trumped any other factor.

So, to answer your specific question: I don’t think there’s a straightforward answer to whether kids should be pushed more or less than they generally are. It’s not a question of pushiness. It’s a question of personal attention. Whether a student needs to be challenged is something that can only be answered by teachers who know their students well.

Q. Did you expect a certain student to win the competition? What ultimately happened?

A. We did expect Georgie Thampy to win. He ended up tying for third. Georgie had come in fourth the year before, at 10 years old. And it was clearly no fluke. He’s homeschooled with his seven brothers and sisters. To meet him even briefly is to know that you’re dealing with a prodigiously brainy kid. But, as happens in the bee, Georgie happened to [get] a word that defied spelling rules and that he had never encountered. And, just like that, he was out. But the happy ending? Georgie returned to the bee in 2000 and won it.

—Samantha Stainburn

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