About an hour ago, I spoke with James Maguire, who wrote perhaps the definitive book about spelling bees: American Bee: The National Spelling Bee and the Culture of Word Nerds. And among those word nerds, of course, was Colleyville's own 13-year-old Samir Patel, the five-timer who was this afternoon eliminated from the Scripps National Spelling Bee for incorrectly spelling the word "clevis." (He spelled it "c-l-e-v-i-c-e," poor kid.) Maguire was in the Grand Hyatt ballroom in Washington, D.C., when the judges rang the bell that signaled Patel's adios from the contest -- his last -- and describes the mood in the room as one of "the simultaneous heartbreak of 700 people."
"Everyone gasped," Maguire tells Unfair Park. "It's like the breath flew out of everyone's chest. There was a moment when everyone was dumbfounded, and as he walked out they all stood and clapped -- a spontaneous standing ovation. It was a pretty dramatic moment. And they kept clapping, and for a moment I thought he might appear on stage again and take a bow. It was high drama."
There's still a local in the finals -- 13-year-old Amy Chyao of Richardson -- but Maguire, who profiled Patel in his book, picked him to finish first in the contest. So did most everyone else who's followed the kid the past five years, as he's come as close as second place but never taken home the title. As such, when that bell rang, Maguire was stunned. Indeed, when he called Unfair Park with the report from D.C., the first thing the author said was, "It's shocking about Samir." He explains:
"I was shocked when that bell rang sending him off stage," Maguire says. "It was a word he knew. As he said as he walked off stage, 'I over-thought it,' and I guess that's what happened. He was exceptionally well-prepared, and he knew the word. I don't think it was anyone's fault. It was a fair-and-square word. In the heat of the moment, even the greatest of experts makes a mistake. The winds of fate blow in funny ways."'
There was some talk shortly after Patel's exit that perhaps the word had been pronounced incorrectly, prompting an appeal from his parents. But Maguire says the judge's initial ruling was correct, because even if there is an alternate pronunciation, Patel never asked for one.
"If they would have reinstated Samir, it would have called into question a lot of words that have been misspelled," he says. "I can't say I disagree with the ruling. As much as I admire him, what happened was pretty fair and square."
Fact is, Maguire says, he has known many a former would-be champ who came this close, only to come up short. And they've all said the same thing: Sure, they didn't win, but they learned a great deal about how to deal with losing and living. And that's almost more important than some lousy trophy and title.
"What a talented kid he is and what a great personality, and there's no doubt in my mind he will go far in life," Maguire says. "It doesn't feel like this for all of us when we take a tumble, that there could be a deepening process. But I talked to a lot of kids who didn't win, and they learned something about life. This will sound like a Hallmark greeting card, but it taught them something about, well...I don't know what, to be honest. But it's definitely a lesson to be learned."
The Championship Finals will air live tonight on WFAA-Channel 8, beginning at 7 p.m. --Robert Wilonsky
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