1 competitor, 1 spelling bee -- 20,000 note cards
CENTREVILLE, Va.—One of the favorites to win this year's National Spelling Bee lay face down on his living room floor wearing a black shirt, blue jeans and white socks, his torso supported by a couple of big pillows. His hands seemed to be on nonstop autopilot as they folded colorful paper into origami shapes.
Across the room in a big chair sat his younger brother. Between them were stacks and stacks of oversized, homemade note cards, bound by rubber bands and arranged like a city skyline on a large footstool. They are only a fraction of some 20,000 cards in the house, each printed with a word, its origin, pronunciation and definition.
These particular stacks contained the really hard words, the ones 13-year-old Tim Ruiter hadn't mastered yet.
"Murumuru," said 11-year-old Charlie Ruiter, stumbling just a bit over the syllables.
"Murumuru?" Tim answered.
"What does it mean?"
"It's a palm tree."
"M-a-r-u-m-a-r-u," Tim guessed.
"M-u-r-u-m-u-r-u," his brother replied, giving the correct spelling.
"Agh," Tim said, his eyes fixed on his busy hands the whole time.
Charlie put the card into the pile Tim will have to review again.
It's a familiar scene in the Ruiter (pronounced REYET'-uhr) household -- sometimes with mother Vicki, father Jon or little sister Juliana -- as the Scripps National Spelling Bee approaches. There's little time for the electric guitar that sits by the front window or the collection of science fiction movies on shelves near the back door of the family's town house.
Good thing his father gets a discount on printer ink at his job as a Geek Squad computer repairman.
"We killed our old printer, printing cards," Jon Ruiter said.
Tim came out of nowhere to finish second in last year's bee -- the only non-teenager to make the finals -- and now he's considered a major contender to take home the top prize when 273 English-speaking spellers from across the U.S. and around the world descend on Washington, D.C., for the three-day competition this week, with the semifinals on ESPN and Friday's finals live in prime time on ABC for the fifth consecutive year.
Last year, he was anonymous. This year, he's a celebrity, at least for the one week each year when it's super-cool to be considered a spelling nerd. Other kids will likely go out of their way to seek his autograph Tuesday at the annual spellers' picnic.
A TV crew wants to meet with him during bee week at the official hotel, where he gets a room even though he lives only 25 miles or so from the nation's capital. Tim, it's believed, has a chance to win it all, assuming he can master words like "jacqueminot" and "byssinosis." He knows he'll never use them in conversation -- unless it happens to be with another bee participant. One stack of his cards has the riveting label "German etymology but not really from German."
"The whole bee," Tim said, "is largely focusing on almost -- but not entirely -- useless information."
Tim discovered his gift for spelling in second grade, when even the sixth-grade word lists were too easy. Eventually, Tim said, his teacher just gave him the dictionary and said, "Here, pick some words that look challenging that you like." After the fifth grade, he asked his parents if he could be home-schooled.
"I wanted kind of a faster pace and more challenge," Tim said, "kind of more freedom with what I was doing, but still covering all the bases."
As a home-schooler, Tim fits a popular Spelling Bee champion's stereotype that is mostly a myth. There hasn't been a home-schooled winner since George Thampy in 2000. The closest candidate over the past decade has been 2007 champion Evan O'Dorney, a charter school student who received much of his education at home.
The stereotype that emphatically fits Tim -- as well as nearly everyone else at the bee -- is the one that can't be avoided: the nerd factor.
The nerd issue came up recently when Tim, filling out a questionnaire for the bee, wrote down Spock from "Star Trek" as his role model.
"We were like, 'You can't put that down, people are going to think you're a nerd,'" Jon Ruiter said. "And he said, 'Helloooo.'"
"He said, 'I'm in the National Spelling Bee. I'm already not cool, OK? There's my nerd factor already,'" Vicki Ruiter said.
However, even nerd-dom can go too far. Last year, Tim wrote in his bio that he does an impersonation of the unusual character Gollum from "Lord of the Rings." Even though his father says the portrayal is "spot on," Tim looks thoroughly embarrassed and sits silently when the subject is broached.
It seems every good speller has an onstage idiosyncrasy -- 2009 winner Kavya Shivashankar wrote every word on the palm of her hand -- and Tim's quirk is that his hands just won't stay still. Last year, his sister made him a bracelet to fidget with, and she's doing the same this year.
If Tim is feeling any pressure to win, it doesn't show. Some spellers have demanding parents and coaches; some sob in the comfort room when they've been eliminated. The Ruiters' philosophy: Second place last year was pretty good, and winning has an element of luck in the later rounds.
"They're having to go to more obscure words, which makes it less a focus of 'Do you understand the roots and how they're put together?' and more on 'Were you fortunate enough to study this word? Or guess it correctly?'" Vicki Ruiter said. "This is why you have to go in with an attitude of 'just do the best you can.'"
This is Tim's last year of eligibility for the bee. He'll enter ninth grade in the fall at a select public high school, leaving the home school routine behind. No matter how he does this week, he'll wake up the following morning with that eerie sensation felt every year by spelling prodigies after their final bee.
"It's going to be a little bit of 'Thank goodness, I don't have to study,'" Tim said. "But also it will be a little kind of odd. I think it'll be a little weird not having spelling to do so much."
Tim, standing near his stacks of note cards, then let out a quick sigh.
"We're going to have a whole ton of scrap paper," he said.