Under the shade trees near the barbecue line at the annual spellers' picnic, one of the favorites to win this year's Scripps National Spelling Bee was inducted into The Order of the Squushy Carrots.
Kate Miller and Katharine Wang asked Sriram Hathwar a couple of nonsensical questions, then Kate held her thumbs and forefingers up to Sriram's forehead and said "ding!" Then Kate and Katherine sang, in two-part harmony, the group's theme song: "The Order Of The Squushy Carrots; at least we don't have hair like parrots. Every day we walk the earth forever alone; no one in the Order plays the sousaphone."
After all that, Sriram looked a bit unsure as to what he'd gotten himself into. Asked if he still wanted to admit that he knew these girls, he answered: "Uh, I guess."
The Order came into being several years ago -- it even has its own logo -- and has become one of the more popular social media groups that helps spellers stay in touch during the 51 weeks of the year when they aren't at the Bee. Kate and Katharine, both at the nationals for the third time, have become best buds even though Kate, 14, lives in Abilene, Texas, and Katharine, 12, now lives in Morristown, New Jersey, after representing China the last two years.
They are among 281 contestants age 8 to 15 vying this week for the title of top speller in the English language. The Bee began Tuesday morning with a computerized spelling and vocabulary test, with onstage rounds starting Wednesday on the way to Thursday's prime-time finals.
The competition is an invaluable social experience, and groups like the Squushy Carrots help make those relationships last.
"The smart kids, when we go home, we don't always have a place where we're with our own kind," Kate said, "and so this is a place where we can really connect and stay in touch, and rejoice through happy times and help each other in the hard times."
Another group is the "Ghetto-pens" -- whose name is "something only spelling geeks would get," according to member Jae Canetti of Reston, Virginia. It's actually a play on "guetapens", the winning word from the 2012 Bee. There are only about seven in the group, and they keep in touch about school, friends, family -- and sometimes about spelling.
"Funny enough, the main topic that spellers try to avoid when they're just casually talking to each other is spelling," said 12-year-old Jae, also making his third Bee appearance. "Just like professional athletes -- they don't wear their team jersey around."
Kate and Katharine also belong to a Google Group with dozens of spellers. They stress that social hierarchy doesn't exist among the members -- there's enough of that in life already.
"We're not a clique at all," Kate said. "I want to make that very clear."
In the spirit of inclusiveness, the groups include spellers who are serious contenders along with those who would be happy to make it out of the preliminaries.
Sriram, a 14-year-old eighth-grader from Corning, New York, placed third last year and is back for his fifth and final time.
Twelve-year-old Vanya Shivashankar of Olathe, Kansas, tied for fifth last year and is vying to become the second half of the first sibling tandem of champions. (Her sister Kavya won in 2009.)
Vanya, a spelling social butterfly, is both a Ghetto-pen and a Squushy Carrot.
"It's just really fun meeting all the people who are there," Vanya said, "and just having fun with your friends."
After inducting Sriram, Kate and Katharine wondered aloud what the public would think of the Squushy Carrots.
"Other people will think we're nerdy and weird," Kate said.
"I mean, we're in the Spelling Bee," Katharine replied, laughing. "We ARE nerdy and weird."