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THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE  is a hilarious peek into the world of competitive spelling. Rachel Sheinkin’s economical and brilliant book lends much to sketch comedy and improv, while William Finn’s score captures the quirky seriousness of the young competitors. But Sheinkin and Finn have also crafted an honest, touching look at why some elementary and middle school students devote their spare time to dictionaries and flash cards. Despite differences in personality and background, the six students in SPELLING BEE use the competition for three things absent in their family situations: a sense of security, parental approval, and a feeling of belonging.

"We've Memorized the Manual"

One way the spelling bee compensates for family is by providing students with security through structure. At the beginning of the bee, Vice Principal Panch sings the rules which the students echo, clearly familiar with them. Between the sing-songy tempo of the vocal line and the ease at which the students repeat them, it’s evident that these rules are nothing new, but are recited at every such event. Having prior knowledge of the rules starts the competitors in a place of confidence—this is an environment they know extremely well. The simple existence of rules helps the students feel secure, as well. There’s nothing messy or ambiguous here; there are no exceptions or surprises. That kind of order is in sharp contrast to their family lives, however. Leaf Coneybear, the only home-schooled competitor, comes from a large and energetic family that must often be overwhelming. Logainne SchwartzandGrubenierre is made fun of for being raised by two fathers—who pressure her to win at all costs. William Barfee has a “real mom” and a “fake mom.” And Olive Ostrovsky saves one seat in the audience for her father who’s “gonna try to come later,” and one for her mother in India, “but it’s merely symbolic/As daily she cleanses herself in the Ganges.” Olive in particular expresses her need for structure in her love of dictionaries: “Every word’s in alphabetical order,/Ergo lost things always can be found.” Amid all this uncertainly, the rigidity of the spelling bee is one of the few things they can count on.

Which Is Why I Gotta Win This Spelling Bee"

The competition also enables them to receive parental praise, support, and even love. Only at the competition because the top two spellers from his region couldn’t make it, Leaf is shocked when he gets a word right. “I’m not that smart,” he confesses. “My siblings have been telling me that for years.” There’s no indication as to how his parents feel, but ridicule from his siblings is enough to cripple Leaf’s self-esteem, since being home-schooled means “they see who’s smart.” By doing so well in the spelling bee, however, Leaf proves to his family that they’ve grossly underestimated him. Logainne “makes [her]eslf crazy/Being what [her] dads hope [she]’ll be.” When she’s eliminated, she’s incredibly hard on herself, equating losing the competition with losing her parents’—and the country’s—love:

“I hope you still love me, America.
America, I gave it my best try.
If you still don’t love me, America
I understand why.
You hate losers.
So do I.
I’m a loser, so goodbye.”

The overachieving parochial student Marcy Park also has parental love at stake. Marcy, who came in ninth at the national competition the previous year, is no stranger to winning. “I speak six languages,” she announces.

“All-American in hockey,
And anything I do,
I do without getting sore.
I speak six languages.
And I like the theme from Rocky,
Though I play Mozart more.”

It takes a vision of Jesus to make her realize that she doesn’t have to be perfect. “[W]ould you be disappointed with me if I lost?” she asks.

“Of course not—but Marcy?” Jesus replies. “I also won’t be disappointed with you if you win.”

“You’re saying it’s up to me then?”

“Yes, and also, this isn’t the kind of thing I care very much about.”

If a divinity cares about her regardless of whether she wins or loses, then surely Marcy’s human parents would, too. Relieved, Marcy purposely misspells a word, no longer seeking approval through competition.

"Just Being Here Is Winning"

In addition, the spelling bee gives its competitors a place where they belong. Many of the participants aren’t exactly the most popular kids at school. Barfee has severe allergies, “a rare mucous membrane disorder” that prevents him from breathing out of one nostril, and is arrogant to the point of rudeness. Leaf is generally spacey and easily distracted; Marcy comes across as being “all business;” Olive believes “the words in the dictionary/Are the friends that [she]’ll have forever/More than the friends [she has] made in school.” At the bee, these attributes aren’t the liabilities they are normally. While Barfee’s body normally holds him back, here, it’s what allows him to win—he uses his foot to write out the word on the floor before spelling it out loud. Olive uses the word games she makes up to bond with Barfee—they’re even friends by the end of the show. Because he’s good at spelling, Leaf doesn’t feel marginalized at the bee the way he does with his siblings. “I like to spell,” Leaf realizes. “And if this competition’s hell/At least I’m finally a part.” The beginning of the show is one of the few times all the students sing the same thing. Here, they express their excitement as well as how the bee unites them: “People think we’re automatons/But that is exactly what we’re not.” This is a place where they don’t have to worry about being made fun of or being lonely; all that matters is their ability to spell.

“You’re lucky your parents are in India,” Logainne tells Olive after one of her fathers interferes with the competition. Olive might not agree with the specifics, but she can certainly understand Logainne’s underlying sentiment—as can the other competitors. Because the competition offers security, approval, and feeling of belonging, it helps these students try to create what they need from their families. Not all the students resolve their issues by the end of the competition, but at the end of the show—when Sheinkin and Finn offer a glimpse of what the characters will become—it’s clear that they all come to terms with themselves and their families over time.

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