It’s early spring, so for me, that means at least two things: I’m making props for the school play (more on it later) and I’m officiating at a school spelling bee. Today was the bee, and tonight is the debut of the play, so I got the double whammy.
I’ll say first off that I love doing both of these. It’s never a burden or an imposition. That’s why it’s a little heartbreaking that this will be my last bee. My hearing isn’t getting any better, and while I’ve never missed the spelling of a word b/c of it, I’d hate for it to be a factor in the future, especially since the winner of this bee gets to travel to Washington DC and compete nationally. Point of fact, today’s participants weren’t exactly Ethel Merman in the enunciation department, so I had to watch their lips and listen very intently. Time to hang up my Merriam-Webster and all the benefits the position held.
(For an essay I did some years ago when my son was in the city-wide bee in fifth grade, click here for the audio of the radio broadcast, or here for the text version.)
Today was the Chicago-wide bee for kids in private and parochial schools and homeschoolers. The 25 kids were a handsome lot, but so many different sizes! Ranging from 4th to 8th grade, there was literally a 2 foot difference between smallest and tallest.
The hardest part of judging a bee is that you end up pulling for every single kid, and you get your heart broken when they fall. Some kids were nervous, with quivering voices and loud sighs when concentrating. A smaller number were (or seemed) pretty nonchalant about it. One or two wrote the word out with their finger in their palms, but not as many as I’ve seen on TV. One of the youngest, smallest kids was really crushed when she misspelled a word (I think she was the first to do so), and buried her face in her hands and her collar as she sat down in the group. It was maybe the most upset I’ve seen a participant in my 5 or 6 years of doing this. In time, I noticed the boy next to her try to coax her back into equilibrium and elicit a small high-five out of her. Maybe bees, like sports, reveal character.
One thing about the words this year: Not many of the kids (thank heaven) got stuck with the extreme foreign words that have been included in recent years. I’m talking about really strange ones, like taj, klompen, babushka, sevruga, koan, peloton, Backstein, and aul (if you’re curious, “a mountain or desert settlement in the Caucasus region”, and a homophone for awl, which I wouldn’t think many kids would know unless their father was a cobbler).
Now certainly, the kids get the entire list of words to study, but what’s the chance of a kid spelling a word like mynheer (a Dutch word meaning “Mister”) versus a word he or she might’ve read or seen at some point, like charlatan or vernacular? Familiarity is a reason I would ban certain words like caribou and chipotle, since they are on commercial signs all over town, and thus might be easier to recall.
When it was obvious that the three finalists would be able to go all day on the list of words they’d studied, it was time to go off road and start from the list of words they hadn’t seen. These were all more common English words, but they weren’t a cakewalk, either. One participant fell by the way with her first word, deductible (yeah, how many schoolkids ever have to worry about a deductible?). But the final duo battled it out for about 15 minutes, going through 28 words back and forth before the victor emerged. He’s a 7th grader who placed about 4th citywide last year, so it was good to see him pull it out. But you wouldn’t believe how effortlessly both he and his opponent (a 6th grader) plowed through the word list, picking off desperately, exaggerate, fluoride, leviable and scuttlebutt (TWO T’s at the end!!!) like they were pumpkins waiting for release by a baseball bat.
The top five kids each got a prize, but the fairness of it left something to be desired. Fourth and fifth place each got a $25 gift certificate to Amazon. Third place received a year’s subscription to Encyclopedia Britannica dot com, and second place received the EB.com subscription plus a dictionary. All due respect to the hardworking folks at EB and Merriam-Webster, but these kids ain’t that impressed with your name brand. Numbers 2 and 3 were undoubtedly saying to themselves, “Those two get to spend their money any way they want, and I get a ticket to Research Dinosaurville.” Way to go.
Since it appeared that the words were a little less obscure this year, I don’t have many to give out for you to work into your everyday conversations, as I have in the past. It took a little digging, but here are a few to file under “It Pays To Increase Your Word Power”:
gynarchy — “government by women”
sitzmark — “a depression left in the snow by a skier falling backward” (if you can believe it, the speller got this one right)
hoomalimali — “the art or device of persuasion and flattery” (from Hawaiian)
decrement — “the act or process of gradually becoming less; decrease”
purfle — “a decorated border, esp. an embroidered edge of a garment”
Sparge these into all your parleys this weekend and flummox your conversances!