The American Spelling Bee, Anne Arundel County edition

Middle schoolers often do not know what to do with their hands.  Put them on a stage and ask them to listen to a word, its definition, its origin and its use in a sentence and then spell it?  They don’t know what to do with their hands, where to look or often how to stand.  At the Anne Arundel County Spelling Bee they do know how to spell, though.

When they approach the microphone they often step awkwardly–it’s when you first notice that they don’t know what to do with their hands!  An older boy may saunter, another may practically skip, his number placard trailing behind him like a kite.  Some girls struggle to walk in unfamiliar pumps.  Other girls used to wearing jeans fumble for pockets where there are none in their skirts.

After the first round, they no longer wait to be summoned to their rendezvous (fourth round word) with the microphone and, typically, a large or foreign word.

As an adult, it is gratifying to know that I can spell most of the words–although maybe not in the spotlight, at the microphone, with everyone’s eyes on me!  I am impressed when the young, earnest students spell words of foreign origin with all sorts of false-friend-sounds.  By the time they get to the later rounds, I can spell fewer on my own and am continually impressed.

I am not a strictly neutral observer.  It is painful to see any of the students trip up–especially, in the first round.  When the speaker first uttered “begonia” four words into the first round, my brain went blank with panic and it was only as the speaker read the definition and used it in a sentence that my grey matter regrouped and I inwardly winced as the contestant stammered “b-a-“.  Maybe it is because I teach, or maybe because I think these kids are so cool learning all of these great words, but I am eager to seem them all succeed.

I was also attending as a spelling bee parent.  My kid is tall enough to pass for one of the eigth graders, but is only in sixth and soaked up all the experiences getting “powwow” in the first round and exiting in the third after being asked to spell the name of an African species of antelope.  (I, too, as an adult, would have exited on that word!  Still wanting to know how to spell it, I have looked for it on the internet and think the word was “rooibok,” but remain unsure–we all thought there were more consonant sounds in it.)  I might as well tell you that she is the coolest kid ever!  Nonplussed by her exit, she is excited about next year and is one of only a few students who exited before the break, which came after the conclusion of the fourth round, and stayed to watch the entire Bee.  You may be inclined to write this off as mere braggadocio (fifth round word) from a devoted parent, but if you think about her achievement for a moment you realize it is not.  They were all courageous!  She was a good sport, as well, remaining optimistic and excited, hungry to go again!

That's my girl!

In the opening of the fifth round following the break, the field had thinned, culled from its original 27 to 12.  Gradually, the words become more exotic.  What we learn about the breadth of the English language is how engorged it is with international words: kommisar, Masala, vortrekker, Baedeker, gesundheit, apparatchik, schottesch, uitlander, philhellenism, procurator–all eighth round words and all spelled correctly!   Not one of the words I just listed is of English origin–many of them are, in fact, relatively recent entrants to English dictionaries.  It appears safe to say that spelling bees are luciform (ninth round word) examples of our cultural evolution, reflected through our language’s evolution.  We also learn that most of us fail to take full advantage of this rich language and its global heritage–why do we end our vocabulary training?

As the Bee progresses, it reveals that your school, private or public or homeschooled, is less relevant than the students’ hardwork, perseverance and perhaps a little good fortune.  The students, without trying, are their own best cheerleaders, as parents sit wanting their own child and all the students to somehow win; many of the students cheer for their competitors and genuinely congratulate each success.  Accordingly, as Emily Durell of Crofton Middle School clinched first place by correctly spelling “execration”–something everyone appeared to avoid or hide very well–it was revealed (after some minor confusion and calculations) that over half of the contestants to enter the final rounds after the break placed in the top three.  Once it dwindled down to the end, it did so quickly!  Five students tied for second place and two for third place!

Coming from an avid fan of sporting events, the Bee was surprisingly exciting and dramatic!  After attending my first ever spelling bee, I think I may be hooked!  This works out well for me as a parent, since Xan looks forward to competing again in the upcoming years!

The final results:

  1. Emily Durell, Crofton Middle School, Anne Arundel County entrant for The Scripps National Spelling Bee–we’ll be rooting for her on ESPN!
  2. Courtney Dixon, Annapolis Area Christian School; Carolyn Teresa “Carrie” Shade, School of the Incarnation; Jessica Schultz, St. Jane Frances School; Elizabeth “Hope” Lomvardias, St. Martin’s Lutheran School
  3. Christopher Allan Umanzor, Old Mill Middle South; Katharine Reed, Severn School

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