St. Paul once wrote, “The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” Rebecca Sealfon ’05 probably would have kicked his ass. Catapulted into national renown after her first place victory in the 1997 Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee, the spirited 13 year-old Rebecca rode the crest of a rising wave of national interest in this highly competitive showcase of mental ability. She was perhaps the only contestant in the history of the Bee with the spunk to inform the judges simply and unapologetically that the words they had chosen were “idiotic.”
Her performance during this event was memorable; not only did she win the contest, she won the performance, appearing enthused and charismatic. This famous energy lingers on today: she remains a warm and effusive individual whose mind cheerfully ambles through the glades of academia.
It’s difficult to spell out the peculiar attraction she possesses, this woman of past and persistent fame. A reporter should never put such loving sentiment into so many words to a woman “of letters,” as Borges would say. Sesquipedalian antics and muscular prose aside, girls who have a talent—any talent—with words remain alluring.
Interviewed by the full gamut of news-organizations—from ABC News to Hinduism-Today—she can boast herself the focus of an online fan-site, the inspiration for a South Park episode, and most importantly a female role-model for thousands of children united by a love of spelling and a tenacity for academic competition.
On her fame and glory, Sealfon has a pragmatic outlook. “You only have so much time in the world,” she says in her clear, deliberate adagio. She feels as if she has to move beyond the fame she’s achieved.
Today she looks back somewhat cynically at the cavalcade and fanfare of those days, seeing herself and the competition itself as something that captivated a nation whose economy was safely complacent and the tenor of whose daily news was, as Sealfon frankly puts it, “boring.” No longer the plucky 13 year-old on stage holding an enormous trophy above her head, she humbly edges her feline frame into 2-D—which, to dispel any confusion, is actually a three-dimensional vegetarian co-op with 40 members—where she lives.
This being Rebecca’s day to cook, she goes right to work—a bit flustered, but evidently content in the kitchen. Sealfon, who stands 5’5” in a navy blue and green sweater vest and navy blue pants with rivets and brown suede shoes, wears her hair bobbed in the ends. Before starting on the salads, she washes her hands with soap and scrubs vigorously.
“I like the people. It’s homey here. [You] develop real world skills—not that I’ve been in the real world.” Sealfon actually tried the eating club scene, joining Quadrangle club as a sophomore, but switched to 2-D during the spring of her junior year. “I thought about staying with an eating club. I knew I wanted a community. But this is smaller. People get to know each other better. There are lots of interesting people here [who] say very interesting things. [They’re] kind.”
As she prepared that night’s dinner, Sealfon waxed eloquent on the subject of celebrity. “By being too focused on single top people, people miss out on a lot. There’s an interest in how to get to the top, but there’s also the notion of what is at the top.” Indeed, Sealfon judges that celebrity, prestige, and excellence are often subjective, adding, “There is always a top, but it’s different for every person.”
Having been home schooled up until high school, Sealfon had the freedom and opportunity to train for the Bee. When she was 12, Sealfon said she studied five days a week for three to four hours a day. There are words that are continually reused in the National Spelling Bee, and she began by studying this list of words. This activity, along with a regimen of studying Latin and Greek roots and learning Latin, helped her to win the regional finals.
During the Bee, Sealfon said she pictured each letter in her head before spelling the word to the judges because as soon as a contestant says a wrong letter, he is eliminated from competition. Sealfon feels that many contestants actually know the word that ends up causing their Bee demise; it’s often just a “slip of the tongue” that results in spelling doom.
As a 12-year old at Nationals, Sealfon’s efforts came to naught. But she continued her regimen, gaining a certain confidence. “I decided to study harder. It’s not necessarily about studying more, but about studying the right things.”
Since the Bee is only open to those 13 or younger, Sealfon knew she had to go for broke. “It was my last and best shot. Not everyone can take the situation. There’s a lot of pressure and time involved.” She paused and inclined her head. “Time is time. You have to choose how you want to use it.” With that in mind, Sealfon’s sister, currently a freshman at Princeton, and her brother, who will soon turn 14, both opted out of spelling in favor of other interests.
In the co-op, Rebecca sliced organic celery into individual letters.
Her knowledge and perspicacity, however, transcend the mere orthographic and penetrate into the anthropological: “The thing I learned most is what TV is and why television producers choose to put what they put on. How television is conceived and executed.” Sealfon sees the popular fascination with the Bee as stemming from the natural pleasure of observing others in real-life situations.
“The first reality shows appeared a couple years after my victory. A lot of sports figures are not professionals but get parts because the broadcasts picture their reality.” The old alpha-male football player may not be the sharpest commentator, but there’s something reassuring in his chattering girth. Sealfon sees our obsession with documentaries, biographies, and reality TV as testaments to the mimetic allure of life in its intensity and taut elasticity – something the image of the Bee provides for us.
While she was the object of the public’s attention, Rebecca dealt daily with the pressure of having her own reality examined. “It was an interesting experience to have the experience of being famous and not famous… I think I was mature enough [at 13] to handle the fame. I told myself I’m going to go on. Then I just wanted to enjoy the summer after. I wanted to end things with a bang. That’s what I wanted to do before I entered high school.” She began attending Stuyvesant, a prestigious public school in New York. “Fame’s not necessary and doesn’t last forever. That’s one of the things I was thinking during the competition.”
But all the while she was dreaming of victory. “When I wasn’t studying for the spelling bee…one thing I was going was thinking of I would do on television if I won. It was a fantasy.”
Her spelling of the word that enabled her final victory is unforgettable in its exuberance and youthful expressivity (the video is also all over the internet). The word “euonym” is given. Sealfon hears, sways, touches her head. “Euonym,” she repeats. She requests a detail of its etymology, turns her head to the side and smiles as one of the judges answers. One senses that the etymological query was not strictly necessary. The judge barely has time to answer before Sealfon throws her arms in a firm Y-shape with each letter, and shoots back in singsong anapaest, “Eu-o-NYM.” Reflexively, ecstatically, she jumps up and down several times. She throws her hands into the air for each letter as she shouts the winning sequence into the microphone. Appropriately, a euonym denotes something “well-named.”
As spoils, Rebeccca took home $5,000, a laptop, and what she calls “free-bees” supplied by a variety of sponsors. Happy with her panoply of prizes, Sealfon calculated that she had made just over minimum wage in all of her hours of studying.
“But it’s not about the money. I’m not going for a lucrative career.” Sealfon wants to be a professor, and though she has no definite plans for next year, she intends to take a year off to study biology. “One thing about life that I sort of realized,” she said, “is that a fair amount of life is just trying stuff and seeing what happens.”
Sealfon’s interests range widely and deeply through the kingdoms and provinces of science. For example, spurred by a random association, she quickly spoke about the curricular plight of paleontology—a field that she diagnosed as somewhat neglected at Princeton due to its inherently interdisciplinary nature.
Suddenly, people in the co-op begin asking what is happening, why Rebecca is being interrogated. When it is explained that she is a “celebrity,” Sealfon begs to differ. “I’m not the main event,” she insists. “I actually don’t like being the sole attraction.” She pauses and points at the celery she was slicing. “Look! I’m not even making the main course.”
“When people think about an ecosystem, I sometimes think of a little place called 2-D,” she says. “We have a very interesting dynamic. We are somehow very alike. I have a fascination with things that are oddly similar with things that seem different but are oddly similar.”
The co-op exists as a habitat in which bonding and altruism build a strong community. “Every member earns their keep. The group dynamics are interesting. People have very much in common. [They’re] very uplifting rather than demeaning. We promote individuality, but rely on each other to create a whole that is stronger than the sum of its parts.” Each person in the co-op has a job: bread baking, washing towels, or managing the compost. Sealfon acts as a liaison for the co-op to the rest of campus in promoting it to those who might be interested in joining
Sealfon still gets stopped in the subway on occasion; the facebook.com group “Rebecca Sealfon is Totally Sweet at Spelling” stands dedicated to her victory; and the press still solicits interviews – eight years after the event. Regrets? “I still feel bad for the kids I beat,” she tells us sincerely. She still keeps in touch with some of them.
Sealfon remains a stout defender of nature against the ideological impositions of man’s fantastic conception. She frequently and caustically criticizes those inaccurate and naive representations of nature that percolate freely through books, cinema, and the media. Indignantly, she gestured at a charming picture of a stoat and asked, “How in the world do people see this animal as evil?”
The famed Redwall series by Brian Jacques, which holds its own within the realm of fantasy literature and pairs nefarious rats against benevolent badgers, irks Sealfon. She dismissed it as harking back to the “medieval bestiary.” To paint one species as innately “evil” and another as “good” is entirely foolish especially when as one of the species singled out by Jacques for moral censure is the lovable and gentle stoat. “Why do weasels have such a bad reputation in society?” Sealfon demanded.
This woman of orthographic prowess combines lemon juice with tahini (which she spelled) before adding caraway seeds to create the salad dressing.
“Art and science have a strange relationship,” she declares. “They are at war with each other.”
Nonetheless, Sealfon has discovered a way for confluence between left-brain and right-brain in her enjoyment of creative writing. In Joyce Carol Oates’s creative writing class, Sealfon used her personal experiences with her cat to build a fantastical story. “The first story I wrote was about a cat,” she says. “I have a cat. I like small carnivores. And the cat turns itself into a person. It was a cat that lived indoors and its owners weren’t letting it outside to kill birds. The cat decided that it would have to turn into a person. But when she turned into a person…the cat had her priorities switched all around. She could have killed the bird, but didn’t. Most people don’t react to a song bird singing the way a cat would, would you?”
Sealfon’s transformation from pubescent spelling champ to mature Princeton senior seems analogous to that of the cat of her story–just different goals, different priorities, and a different outlook on life than her old self. She has journeyed from Bee to EEB, but unlike the cat… she’s a vegetarian.
At the moment, Sealfon is writing her thesis on the comparative dental morphology among members of the weasel family and its effect on their ecology. She casually dropped the word “frugivorous,” first spelling and then explaining its application to her own project. She wielded her knife with savage determination and cut an orange for the photo-op. She’s been onstage before; she didn’t mind the camera.
Although ecology is a scientific discipline, it heavily depends upon written description as an essential part of its procedure. When it comes to reconciling fiction with reality, Sealfon says, “I don’t know if we care about reality more than fiction. We care about the interface between reality and fiction.” Sealfon does not find this incongruity to be confounding or problematic so much as stimulating – part of the variety, charm, and contradictory character of ecology.
If there is a common thread running through Rebecca Sealfon’s life, it is the idea of the home. Ecology, as its Greek roots tell, is the study of the oikos, the home: ecology examines the homes of nature–each existing in its interconnectedness, self-containment, and organic harmony of its components. And at Princeton Sealfon has affiliated herself with the 2D co-op, a close-knit group of like-minded yet diverse students who take turns in preparing simple, vegetarian, and communal meals for one another. This living unit would seem to exemplify the idea of the home through its communal orientation and domestic consonance. From her Brooklyn provenance to the many microcosms of ecology to the grand community of the academy, Sealfon seems at home. Yet one component of her life seems missing from this thematically-keyed idea of the home: spelling. In what possible way might spelling bear upon the theme of the home? “Language,” as Heidegger wrote, “is the House of Being.”