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For G-E-E-K-S, spelling bee a metaphor for life

Media, Hollywood catch on to riveting contest's ups, downs

NEW YORK -- It has never been as cool to be a spelling bee geek as now.

Once considered a slightly odd academic subculture, the contests where schoolchildren compete to spell words most youngsters do not understand are now popping up in movies, books, a musical, and even advertisements.

George Hornedo was stumped by the word totipotency (the ability of a cell to generate unlike cells and form a new individual or part) at last year's National Spelling Bee and placed 71st. But the 14-year-old will try again at this year's contest on Wednesday and Thursday, just months after shooting a Hollywood movie about spelling.

''Lots of people have made comments about how spelling bees are geeky . . . but now it's becoming cool," said Hornedo, who attends Park Tudor School in Indianapolis and plays basketball, baseball, and tennis when he is not studying.

He was spotted at last year's nationals in Washington by the director of ''Akeelah and the Bee," a film about a precocious girl from Los Angeles who battles adversity to compete in the spelling bee. With Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett in the cast, the film is due out early next year. Hornedo has a small role in the film.

Director and screenwriter Doug Atchison said he stumbled on the spelling bee by accident on television 10 years ago.

''The first time I saw it, I didn't know what it was. I was watching a basketball game, and I switched channels during the commercials and got the spelling bee," he said. ''I found it more compelling than the basketball game I was watching."

According to the 2002 Oscar-nominated documentary ''Spellbound," which brought the quirky culture to audiences around the world, some 9 million US children compete in spelling bees.

From local school contests, through district and regional rounds, the elite make it to the National Spelling Bee. This year 273 children 9 to 14 years old will compete for the top prize of $22,000 in cash plus scholarship funds, an encyclopedia, and huge national media attention.

''At first I wanted to do it because I'm a very competitive person and it was another thing I thought I could succeed at, and as time went on I began to enjoy it," said Hornedo.

''I don't know when I'm going to be using that in my life," he said of ''totipotency," the word that bested him last year.

Author Myla Goldberg was among the first to see the dramatic potential of the spelling bee, which is central to the plot of her successful 2000 novel ''Bee Season" about a 9-year-old spelling genius and her troubled family.

Goldberg said the National Spelling Bee, now in its 78th year, was ''a small part of the fabric of the American experience" but one that appealed to people far and wide. ''I had to write a preface to the international edition of the book explaining what a spelling bee was," she said.

The film ''Bee Season," starring Richard Gere and Juliette Binoche, is due for release in September.

The spelling bee is so ubiquitous these days that it even features in an advertisement for Citibank, in which a small boy stands nervously at a microphone trying to spell ''volatility."

It was also the inspiration for this year's hit comic musical ''The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," a low-budget show that landed six Tony Award nominations.

Rebecca Feldman, who created the musical with a group of improvisational actors, said she was inspired by ''Bee Season."

''What interested me initially is how much competition these kids are put under and how much pressure. And some of these kids already have enough pressure in their lives," she said.

The children in the musical are played by adults, and are almost caricatures -- from an overweight bully who visualizes the words by writing them out with his foot to an overachieving Asian-American girl who longs to rebel.

''We all remember that awkward stage," Feldman said. ''It's like putting the geeks under the microscope, and the geek in all of us relates and sympathizes."

The musical, like the documentary ''Spellbound" and ''Bee Season," raises serious issues about parental pressure.

Goldberg said that while most competitors at the bee were driven by their own desire to win, the problem of pushy parents was a real one, and not limited to spelling bees. ''It's sad when any kid is pushed into anything, and it's a big part of childhood trying to figure out what you want to do yourself."

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