MY WIFE and fellow spelling bee judge actually wrote it in the margins of the book of words, complete with exclamation point: “Wow!”
On Sunday afternoon we were down to three contestants. Ameen Bader, third in a family of successful spelling bee contestants, had little trouble with “heliacal” (relating to or near the sun). Defending regional champ Devin Reed paused a long time before opting to put an extra “i” in “stereognosis” (tactile recognition). And just like that, the most intense spelling bee we have ever helped judge was down to two: Ameen and Grant Loose.
A chainsaw would not have cut through the tension in the room.
Yes, it’s time for my homage to the remarkable students who participate in The Times Leader/Scripps annual regional spelling bee, and make no mistake, they were great. Bader, Reed and Loose, in particular, were almost stunning once they stood alone on the stage. Like tennis stars smashing the wimpiest of lobs, the three knocked down every word we tossed up. It became obvious we would be there all day if we didn’t ramp up the difficulty.
But this year, the audience at The Woodlands Inn surprised even more. We always urge everyone to stay for the whole show, usually to little avail, as the room thins in sync with the declining number of students in contention. Not this time. While I couldn’t afford to put much focus on the crowd, they seemed as riveted as we were by the on-stage drama.
During the early going, they clapped rigorously at the end of each round. In the later rounds, they gasped at each falter and sighed relief at each success. Sara Planutis, from Hazleton Area’s McAdoo-Kelayres, became a crowd favorite, smiling through her own anxiety, tossing out exclamations such as “oh my gosh!” when the word surprised her, and spelling with meticulous care, her lips moving almost constantly in silence between the pronunciation of each letter.
You wanted her to get it right simply because she was putting so much effort into it. Sara signaled her uncertainty when given her final word “kahuna” (a master of Hawaiian religious lore) by turning to us and saying “What’s the word?!” But she did it with a smile, and took her best shot (“C-A-H-O-O-N-A”).
And yes, at one point, the audience caused us to reconsider a ruling.
From the start, Wyoming Area Catholic School’s Danielle Morris was equal parts endearing and brave. she worked her way carefully through “crimson” (deep red) in round one, but missed on “gristle” (tough matter in table meats) in round two. Announcer Jean Lynott had used a correct pronunciation when she said “Your word is gri-zal,” and Danielle didn’t think to ask for an alternate pronunciation, which would have yielded gri-sal. She spelled it with a “z.”
I reluctantly ruled her incorrect. The crowd started grumbling. One man came up to look at the word list to see for himself. We ran through a few more words, but the murmurs never stopped, so we did. I explained the ruling, then we went into conference and decided that, since “gri-zal” was the second pronunciation, not the first, we’d let Danielle tackle a different word. The smile on her face as she bounded back on stage amid loud applause would melt any heart.
While she got her replacement word (“yield”) right, Danielle spelled out in the next round by inserting a “t” in “formidable” (tending to inspire awe). Confusing “t” and “d” is one of the most frequent errors.
This was also the first year we had two remaining contestants both spell out in a single round, requiring both to participate in another round. The emotional roller coaster became almost unbearable. Ameen slumped in frustration after missing “decastich” (a poem of 10 lines), then rose with a thrill as Loose misspelled “Bastide” (a French medieval village), only to tumble down again after omitting the “s” in “viscount” (a noble ranking).
He watched -- or perhaps,more accurately, listened -- as Loose worked his way through two words to become this year’s champ: “Crambo” ( ineffectual rhyme), and “emanant” (issuing or flowing forth).
Every year, I lament the need to limit the winner to only one of these bright people. This year it was even harder than usual, not only because they were all so worthy, but because the crowd was so involved.
When my wife wrote in the margins near the end of the bee, she was spontaneously recording an audible reaction from an audience member. But it was a reaction I’m betting everyone in the room was feeling.
Mark Guydish can be reached at 829-7161 or firstname.lastname@example.org