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Both young George Thampy and Spellbound director/producer Jeff Blitz have been obsessed with the Scripps Howard bee since the mid-1990s. That was about the time when Carolyn Andrews' son, Ned, took home the first-place trophy and the $10,000 cash prize. Andrews has remained active with the bee by managing its Web site; she's now one of the event's three word-list managers.
"Georgie wrote to me when he was seven years old," recalls Andrews, speaking from her home outside Knoxville. "He'd seen my son and he wrote, 'I want to hold the big trophy one day.' George was the first visitor to our Web site. I'd posted a word puzzle at midnight. By the next morning, he had posted an answer."
Blitz was watching the ESPN telecast of the 1998 Bee, in which Thampy finished fourth at the age of ten. To put this in perspective: Out of 251 contestants in 2003, only 14 were age ten or under. (The maximum age is fifteen, and no speller who has completed eighth grade is allowed to compete.) Hence, when Blitz set out to identify prospective subjects for Spellbound, Thampy was tops on his list.
Bina and Dr. Thampy initially agreed to allow their son be profiled for the film, which follows the bee-bound lives of eight young spellers with geographic, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds that could hardly represent a more intriguing cross-section of America: The Spellboundviewer is first introduced to bee finalist Angela Arenivar, a self-driven rural Texan whose ranch-hand father speaks no English and crossed the Mexican border illegally to give his family a shot at the American Dream. On the other end of the cultural spectrum sits well-heeled New Englander Emily Stagg, an avid equestrienne whose family's greatest debate is whether to bring their au pair to the nationals. Rounding out the cast is an African-American girl from inner-city D.C.; a hulking shy guy from Rolla; a barkeep's daughter from industrial Pennsylvania; a hypercharged geek from New Jersey prone to answering the filmmakers' questions in "robot voice"; and two Indian kids, one of whom comes with a father who more than fulfills the obligatory role of horrifying parental taskmaster. The other, Nupur Lala of Tampa, eventually wins the competition.
The cumulative effect of the film is, well, spellbinding, in no small part owing to the fact that the families of the aforementioned eight granted Blitz and his filmmaking team virtually unfettered access into their lives. Not so the Thampys.
"The Thampy family was far more restrictive than other families," Blitz recalls. "The Thampys allowed us to come to church with them one day and to interview the parents at a park the next day. But that, until the National Bee, was the extent of it. I had no opportunity to see the family at home, to sit down with Georgie and discuss his life, his studies, his siblings and his spelling. I'm not really sure why this was, but if I had to guess I'd say it was because they don't watch television and didn't ever really understand what Spellbound aimed to be."
Whatever the rationale, the media reticence persists more than four years later. While the Thampys granted the Riverfront Timesample access to their son in a wide range of settings, they drew the line at the front door of their five-bedroom home on Driftwood Lane.
"We have a schedule here," Bina Thampy says simply. "It would be very disruptive to everyone doing what they're supposed to be doing."
Spoken like a true teacher -- which makes perfect sense when you consider that the Thampy abode also serves as classroom, playground and school administration office.
A mere week before George Thampy took home the big trophy in the National Spelling Bee, he finished second in the National Geographic Bee, netting a $15,000 scholarship to the college of his choice. Though the spelling bee has more sex appeal, some would argue that its geography counterpart (sponsored by National Geographic and also held in the nation's capital) is at least as challenging.
"The geography bee encompasses a whole range of knowledge," Carolyn Andrews explains. "You've got your physical geography, cultural geography -- it's a fantastic competition. It requires a special mind to be able to assimilate all the information."
Andrews' son, Ned, has such a mind, and he attempted a similar double in 1994. He tied for 11th in the geography bee the week before winning the Scripps Howard competition. The following year, ineligible for the spelling bee (once you win, you can't compete again), Ned focused squarely on geography and improved to fifth place.
Impressive, to be sure, but Thampy's feat was singular. Most spelling bee competitors eat, sleep and drink words in the months leading up to the Scripps Howard tourney. Thampy, meanwhile, was able to efficiently cocktail knowledge of decidedly different subject matters in advance of two big-time competitions that took place eight days apart. These things simply aren't supposed to happen. Unless, of course, they do.
"You won't often find that sort of dexterity," Andrews understates.
Reckons Thampy: "You can't just be good at one thing. Everybody should have a really wide base."