A couple of years ago, Andrew Napora and his family got the feature film "Spellbound" out of the library, and his response was common to many a student who's seen the documentary about compulsive spelling-bee contestants.
"I remember thinking just how crazy that is," Napora said, "to sit there and just memorize words. That's your life. Just day after day, that's your life."
Yet Napora finds himself preparing to go up against that very same sort of competition in the Scripps National Spelling Bee - the grandaddy of them all. The 13-year-old eighth-grader won the spelling bee at Thomas Middle School in Arlington Heights, then the district competition and placed third in the Northern Cook County Bee - the last time he missed a word - to qualify for the Suburban Cook Regional, which he won last month to claim a trip to Washington, D.C., for the spelling bee in late May. Though he's not the only local teen headed to Washington, he's new to spelling bees and approaching competition with a different perspective.
"I never really had much interest in this. I don't think I'd be participating in it if it wasn't through the school," Napora said. "As soon as I won the school bee, I said to myself, 'I'm not going to make this into a huge ordeal. I'm not going to make this into a big thing, because I don't want this to take over my life.' I've got other things to do."
Napora has always been a good student. Assistant Principal Jason Dietz described him as "a quiet leader" and "a well-rounded individual involved with many different activities." He has a good memory and has always excelled at spelling.
"I haven't exactly enjoyed it," Napora said, "but it's always been something I've been relatively good at."
Now that he finds himself competing on the biggest stage in scholastic spelling, however, he can see it from the other side as well. "Now that I'm a bit more experienced with the spelling bee, I understand more where these kids are coming from," Napora said. "It's a big thing. Before I couldn't understand why people got so engrossed in it. But I can sort of see now that I have a taste for it."
To that end, he admits to stepping up his drilling in recent weeks. "There's this thing called the consolidated word list, and I've been going through that," he said, working from materials on the Scripps National Spelling Bee Web site. "One night every few days I go to the computer and review it and see where I left off and go from there," he added. "It's not intensive, like it's not the five, six hours a day some kids are putting into it."
"He's studying now, though," added Joy Dvoratchek, head of reading at Thomas Middle School and in charge of the spelling bee. "He told me he's really working hard at it. Because he wants to pass the first few rounds once he gets there."
She suggested Napora's attitude might have undergone something of a change along the way. "He was very humble when he was at the (regional) spelling bee," Dvoratchek said. "He was saying, 'This is not a huge deal.' But you could just see it in his face when there were just two of them left. Then I think he was really scared and really nervous." Yet when he prevailed - admittedly with the help of a wee bit of luck, watching the girl he was up against get "graphospasm" on her own, but then topping her on the relatively easy "inadvertent" - that was a whole other ballgame.
That doesn't mean Napora doesn't appreciate his position as something of an outsider in the intensely competitive spelling-bee milieu. He considers inexperience an advantage, however.
"At the Northern Bee and the Regional Bee, I just seemed one of the more relaxed people there. The others seemed to be on the balls of their feet. I wasn't really that tense," he said. "It's interesting to see how the relationships develop under the circumstances. These people only know each other as rivals. It's just a bit more relaxing to know this is the first time I've been here. Because other people, the so-called favorites, I imagine they're experiencing a lot more pressure than I am as a newcomer to the bee."
About 300 finalists will make it to D.C. for the finals beginning May 26 - their ways paid by local corporate sponsors, such as ComEd here for the Naporas - and they'll spend "Bee Week" being feted and celebrated, even as they winnow themselves down to a single champion in coverage carried nationally on TV on ESPN and ABC. (No suburban Chicago student has ever won, and Balu Natarajan, of Chicago, was the last Illinoisan in 1985.)
At that point, of course, in D.C., the competitive juices should kick in for Napora as well as for everyone else. "I think it's partly the self-challenge, to see if I can go this far," he said. "It's just fun to compete, the thrill of actually being in the bee and seeing how well I can do."
And that's something he does have experience in, having just won three medals at the Illinois Science Olympiad at the College of DuPage, which led to the Thomas Middle School being one of seven regional teams going to the state finals at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign late next month. That's more in Napora's field, as he looks to eventually study biology after moving through Hersey High School starting next fall.
For now, however, he's just trying to maintain a certain cool and balanced perspective toward the spelling bee. "I think that one week in Washington will be much more gratifying than the long weeks of studying," he said. "I'm extremely happy with whatever I do. Even if I come in last, it's a wonderful thing to do, just to get there."
Bee: Teen sees being a newcomer as an advantage