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"Your word is," said the caller, "Unction."
"Unction," repeated the champ. "Ung-chun? Am I saying it right? Unction." As she had done throughout the match, she glanced down at her left palm while using her right index finger to 'write' on her hand. "Unction," she said again. "U - N - G - T - I - O - N."
"That is incorrect," said the Judge. "The correct spelling is U - N - C - T - I - O - N."
In the front row, the champ's mother gasped and shook her head.
Last week, my friend Robin sent out a plea to members of the UNO Creative Writing Workshop - was someone available to volunteer as a caller for the Scripps Spelling Bee this Saturday? It was the New Orleans regional bee, a contest to pick a winner to send to the National Spelling Bee in Washington D.C. I stepped up, and on Saturday morning I joined a group of volunteer callers, judges and monitors in the University Center at Xavier University.
When I arrived, most of the volunteers and staff were wearing emerald green blouses or scarves - emerald being the official color of the Bee's badges and signs. Most of them knew one another from previous years, and hugged or air-kissed when they greeted one another. Another newbie, a young man, was briefly interrogated about his name. Did he know this person, or that person? Why yes, he did; indeed, she was his auntie. Oh, she's my godmother, said the staffer. The judge and one of the monitors attended the same church. Others worked at the same office. I was again reminded what a small town New Orleans is.
For a spelling bee, the person who reads the word to be spelled is the 'caller.' There were four callers, ready to lead four sessions, but due to room availability that morning, the bee officials had some adjustments to make, eliminating one session and distributing its contestants among the remaining three. As the least experienced volunteer, I was relieved of my duty. But I asked to stay to help and observe.
Calling is tricky, I learned. Pronunciation is very important, and callers must use the pronunciation as written in the Merriam Webster Dictionary. Sometimes an alternate pronunciation is provided, and that is acceptable, but callers must use the approved pronunciation.
When was the last time you read a phonetic pronunciation guide? You know, with the upside down "e"s and umlauts and straight lines over vowels? Three of us callers went through the list, coaching one another. "Ay-leet," I read. "Oh, wait. it's a schwa, not a long 'a'. Eh-leet."
Words I've been saying one way all my life - "kar-ah-tay" or "kar ah-oh-kay" - must be pronounced the Merriam-Webster way: "kar-ah-tee" and "ker-ee-oh-kee."
"If you think you have trouble pronouncing a word correctly, skip it," advised the Bee organizer.
And so, "It just comes out of my mouth as 'eck-rue,' not 'eck-roo,'" I said. "Me too," said Elizabeth, one of the callers. She put an X next to the word.
The morning session was a qualifier to the afternoon contest. Each session would go down to three contestants. In our room, we had 47 kids for Round One. On the third word - "condor" - a kid put an "e" on the end and went down.
The range of ages and sizes represented by the kids was vast. A contestant may not exceed the age of 15 or be enrolled beyond the 8th grade. There isn't a minimum age listed in the rules. Some of the kids were tall, having hit their puberty growth spurt. Other kids were tiny - one little girl was so tiny she had to stand on her tippy-toes to talk into the microphone. She was eliminated on "Slav," and when she sat down in the disqualified section of the audience, she started to silently cry.
Spellers must look at the judge and speak clearly into the microphone, so that the judge will be able to discern whether they articulate the letters properly - spellers can get tripped up with "T" and "D," for example. One kid went down because his "K" in "fickle" sounded like "A," and upon challenge, all three judges concurred - they had heard it as "A."
In the morning session, 18 kids were eliminated in the first round, leaving 29. At the close of each round, people are allowed to leave, and the little crying girl pressed close to her mom as they left the auditorium, mom stroking the girl's hair.
You could tell that some kids completely misunderstood the word. One boy started to spell "loiter" as "L - A - W." If spellers get confused mid-way through a word, they can start again, but the rules demand that any letters they've already said must stand. So if a kid spells "candidate" "C - A - N- D - A -" he's done for. There were many moments when a kid said a letter and knew it was wrong as soon as it came from his mouth. He or she would freeze in horror, and then completely lose the rest of the word, because it didn't matter anymore. I watched one boy add an extra "t" to "Sputnik," and just shake his head after he said it.
One girl who wore a blue headband always had a worried look on her face when she came up on the stage. She'd clasp her hands in front of her, pointed her toe in pink keds like a dancer, pivot on her feet and sway. She went down on "cruller."
One boy - he made it to the final three - would listen to the caller pronounce the word, and then he'd give a slight nod, as if to say, "Okay, I know this one." He would go on to compete in the afternoon session.
By round 4, there were ten kids left. In the break, the brother of the girl with the blue headband gave her a big hug as the family left the auditorium.
Spellers are allowed to ask questions, including the language origin of the word, its definition, and an example of the word used in a sentence, as well as make requests for the word to be repeated. Practiced competitors learn to make good use of this privilege, buying time for them to think. One boy got it that the "V" sound in "Wagnerian" was really a "W," but he messed up the vowels, spelling "W - A - U - G - N - E - R - I - A - N."
By round 5, we were down to our three contestants.
After lunch, we assembled in the big ballroom for the final contest, and here the nine contestants stood in a line on the stage and stepped up to the microphone. The other two sessions had gone longer than ours; they had gone through some 246 words. I helped coach Elizabeth through the list following these, and we got as far as we could. "It's only nine kids," I said. "Surely it will go pretty fast?"
"These kids are good spellers," she said. "I just hope we don't get into the back of the list. I haven't even looked at those words yet. You sit in the front row, and if I've messed up a word, give me the high sign."
By Round 2 we were down to six contestants. One of the kids eliminated was the boy from our morning session with the confident nod. In Round 4, we went from six to five, another boy going out on "glockenspiel," putting "e" before "i."
During the break, the officials, noticing the kids flexing their knees as they stood, decided to give the kids chairs.
This was a whole different level of spelling expertise than the morning session. You could tell these kids had studied the word list. They had a confidence and a poise that the other kids lacked. They used their allowed questions to the best advantage, and made sure to take their time. More than one kid used the technique of invisibly writing on the hand.
By this time, Elizabeth had passed the point in the word list that we had practiced. She was in unknown territory. I flipped ahead to see what land-mines awaited her. "Landlauf?" "Pangolin?" During the breaks between rounds, we consulted one another. At one point, she pronounced "punctillio" sounding the "L"s out instead of as "punct-tee-oh," and the judge interrupted her. "Go on to the next word."
We were as nervous as the kids. During the break, one girl sat in her chair and covered her face with her hands. The five spellers lasted three more rounds, until someone went down on "napery."
During the next break, Round 9 took down last year's champ on "unction," but another kid went down as well, on "commiserate." Now it was down to two spellers onstage.
The officials explained that since two kids went down in Round 9, after the champion had been determined, we'd have a spell-off to break the tie for third place. The audience murmured restlessly, and the champ's mom gave her a big hug.
"Fictitious," said the caller.
"Fictitious," said the speller. She was a short Asian-American girl with a serious face. "Fictitious." She looked slightly puzzled. I don't think she understands the word, I thought to myself. "F - I - C - T - I - S - I - O - U - S."
"I'm sorry, that is incorrect," said the Judge, and the crowd roared for the remaining victor. "Hang on, hang on. We have one more round." - for of course, the last standing one must spell the next word correctly.
"Chandelier," said the caller.
The speller looked relieved at her luck. "Chandelier," she said. "C - H - A - N - D - E - L - I - E - R." and smiled broadly.
The third place tie breaker was something of an anticlimax, but I'm sorry to say that last year's champ did not prevail. I didn't record the word she missed. Antigen? Dentrafrice? I no longer remember.
Spelling has always come naturally to me, but I've never been in a Spelling Bee before. This seemed high stakes - the winner gets to go to Washington, D.C. and compete nationally - a big deal for a kid from Slidell, Louisiana. Some of the schools get very booster-ish about their contestants, adding to the pressure. My friend said that last year, the kid who came in second place had thrown a temper tantrum and chucked his trophy in the dumpster. On the other hand, these kids were meeting challenges. One of the top three kids this year, it was rumored, had been living without electricity in her home since the thunderstorms and tornadoes earlier this week.
This year, once the champion was determined, the kids seemed to accept it without anger. Maybe it was because they were all girls. A white girl, an African-American girl, and a Vietnamese-American girl, the three posed together onstage for the photographer, holding up their golden trophies. The ladies in green smiled and clapped. "Do we have your number?" they asked me. "We'll be calling you next year."