The lights come up and 88 small feet shuffle across the stage. It’s time again for the annual Crawford County Spelling Bee. Of all the non-performing arts events we hold in our facility each year, the spelling bee is one of my favorites. I can’t watch the bee without the subtle sound of the “25th Annual” soundtrack playing in the back of my mind so perfectly depicting the atmosphere the county bee.
As I watch each of the young spellers take their seats and await instruction, I’m transported back to the memory of the first county bee I attended in 1999. I was a fourth grader at Alma Intermediate School and had successfully placed second in the school bee after missing the word “tomato.” The vowels always got the best of me, especially when listening to southern pronunciations (TUH-MAY-TOE).
There are 44 students competing in this year’s bee, and they all wait quietly and patiently as the bee coordinator takes the stage to review the rules. She begins by assuring them all that just being here is winning. Of course as the song goes, “although we know it isn’t so, it’s a very nice beginning.” And it is a very nice way to start a competition that at the end of the day will turn out 43 losers and one winner.
The bee begins and after only a few spellers the harsh “ding” of the bell takes it’s first victim. An adorable little girl named Samantha looks a little disappointed at the sound of the bell. A refrain of “The First Goodbye” plays in the back of my head, and I’m wishing we had a comfort counselor like Mitch Mahoney to greet the students as they exit the stage. Samantha runs straight to her family who happen to be sitting in the row behind me and is immediately met with hugs and smiles. She responds matter-of-factly by saying “It’s ok. Now I don’t have to study no more.” Looks like it’s time to move on from spelling to grammar.
There are only two words I don’t know how to spell at this year’s bee – mohair and roughhewn. The latter of which is repeated back and forth between judge and speller about half a dozen times before the girl who received the word finally gives up and just spouts out an assortment of letters. Most of the observers lean forward during this turn also trying to figure out the elusive word. After the bee, I proceeded to my car and asked Siri to help me find it’s spelling and definition. For anyone who is wondering, the word “rough-hewn” denotes wood or stone that has been cut with a tool such as an ax, so that its surface is not smooth.
Each round progresses with only half the participants of the level before. Round 3 is announced as a special vocabulary round, which is new this year. I am pleasantly surprised at the students’ ability to choose from two given definitions of an ambiguous word which both seem highly plausible. By the 5th round only three contestants remain, all girls, two middle school aged and one tiny thing who looks like she is barely 8 or 9.
After a few more rounds one of the older girls is named the champion. Emily “enters spelling history feeling triumph and glee,” as she completes the bee-winning word “democracy.”