Curses to pleurodynia, podilegous, soboliferous, patas, and himation. None of the five Texans who performed in today’s semifinals at the Scripps National Spelling Bee (Sivateja Tangirala of Houston, Thomas Rubio of Midland, Chetan Reddy of Dallas, Abigail Spitzer of El Paso, and Mark De Los Santos of Fort Worth) will compete in the championship round tonight, but anyone who remembers five-time bee contestant Samir Patel from my November 2007 story “The Glorie of Defeet” will not be surprised to learn that he was watching today. I caught up with him on the phone this afternoon and got his take on the last few rounds. (He’s pictured above with his mom on Mother’s Day this year.)
Katy: I think the last time we talked you were fourteen years old; how old are you now?
Samir: I turned 18 in January. I finished high school (I was homeschooled) and graduated concurrently with an associate’s degree in science from North Lake College. I just completed my first year at UT-Dallas, where I’m working on bachelors in biochemistry. In the fall I’m also fast tracking into the graduate program, the master’s program in supply chain management. So after I finish my bachelor’s degree I’ll be pursuing several masters’ degrees in supply chain management, information technology management, and material science.
Katy: Do you miss the bee? It seems like so long ago.
Samir: It does. The first year I was in the bee I was nine and I’m eighteen now, so it was half a lifetime ago for me. It does definitely seem like a long time ago. One of the most interesting parts of looking back on it now that I’m grown up is that back then, I didn’t realize how cute all the little spellers were. When you’re nine, ten, eleven, you don’t view other kids your age to be cute. But I’m closer to an adult and I’m thinking, “Awww, they’re little kids.”
Katy: Any overall favorites for the championship tonight?
Samir: I think the favorite before today’s competition was Vanya Shivashankar. She’s the younger sister of Kavya, who won a couple years ago. The reason I say she was the favorite is because she got a perfect score on the written test. However, she was eliminated in round six today. She won’t be going on.
Katy: So for those going forward, who has the best shot?
Samir: All the spellers remaining have proven to be very competent. They all have different things going for them. For example, Nicholas Rushlow, he’s a five-time repeater, right? So he has lots of experience. Arvind Mahankali, number 162, I believe he came in third last year. You can expect him to put in a good showing as well. Then there’s Frank Cahill, number 30. He is a first timer but has a coach who has won nationals and he looks impressive. For someone who is there his first time, he’s asking all the right questions. So, you know, I think there are a lot of impressive spellers. We’ll just see what happens tonight.
Katy: Any reaction to the Texas showing?
Samir: At the beginning of the day there were five Texans. The last one, Mark de los Santos, from Fort Worth, got one of those words that had no roots. You just had to know it. He gave it a good guess, but unfortunately it wasn’t the right one. That word was himation. It’s spelled with an “i” but he spelled it with an “e” at the beginning. It’s hard to say whether I would have made that error or not. I personally know that word but if I didn’t, I could have gone with the spelling he gave. It’s a reasonable spelling. So when you get to that high level all the good spellers will know phonetic patterns and common roots for each language but then you get the words that seemingly come out of nowhere and it’s just random, whether you study it or not.
Katy: Had you seen Chetan Redy’s word, soboliferous (Redy spelled it “sabaliferous”)? Was that familiar to you?
Samir: I’d seen it before, but I was in the bee for five years.
Katy: Who do you think we’ll see again next year?
Samir: Mark can’t come back; I believe he’s fourteen. If Chetan is old enough he will definitely come back. He was impressive. What you have to look at when you’re analyzing a speller is not whether they got the words right, but whether they were able to ask the right questions and piece the word together even if they didn’t necessarily know it. I felt like he was doing a fairly good job of that. He was showing with the questions he was asking that he knows how to deduce words. While in this specific instance he wasn’t able to figure out the word, I’m sure if he can come back next year he’d put in another strong performance.
Katy: Did you do much with the bee after your last year in competition?
Samir: At first I got involved in other things. I didn’t think of the bee for two or three years. I had old friends competing in it so I’d occasionally check on the results and whatnot, but now in these last two years I’ve been getting back into it in different ways. First of all, there’s a pop culture blog called Throwing Things and each year they liveblog the spelling bee and there are quite a few famous people who contribute. Shonda Rhimes, who is the creator of Grey’s Anatomy, liveblogs. And a bunch of old spellers are there, as well, and I’m one of those. So I’ve been blogging the spelling bee and then tonight we’re doing a live blog with commentary during the championship finals.
Another thing my mom and I have been doing is collating our old studying materials. We’re going to publish it online as a curriculum for aspiring spellers to purchase. We’re also going to start a free advice blog this year for any spellers wanting to compete in the spelling bee. I don’t know if you know this or not, but the Scripps Web site used to have a weekly advice column called Carolyn’s Corner, by Carolyn Andrews, who was the word list manager for the spelling bee. Unfortunately, Ms. Andrews is no longer with the spelling bee and so that column is no longer there. We’re going to try to create something along the same lines: a weekly blog that spellers can follow for tips and advice for how to prepare for the spelling bee. We’ve already got a website up. We haven’t started the advice column, but we’ll be putting it together in the next month and it should be online this summer.