Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/washington/news.aspx?id=37465
Story Retrieval Date: 5/25/2013 9:34:34 PM CST
WASHINGTON – Some celebrated the first round of victory in subtle bursts, while others shuffled out of the downtown hotel to continue touring the nation’s capital. And the rest broke down in tears.
In its 60th year, the Scripps National Spelling Bee was riddled with high emotion, nervous kids and proud parents. As 286 contestants d-u-k-e-d it out on stage, four times their number watched silently and erupted in applause about every 40 seconds. Earlier Wednesday, as their children took the written spelling exam, anxious parents roamed the halls, smoked outside and talked with each other.
Taryn E. Shaw, 11, of Oskaloosa, Iowa, spelled “frivolous” with hands held tight together in front of her, in absolute certainty, and with a tinge of excitement in her voice.
Benjamin Andrew Fallon, 14, of Dyersville, Iowa, walked up to the microphone next and, hands in his pockets, boomed: “Confidential: C-o-n-f-i-d-e-n-t-i-a-l. Confidential.”
But the Iowans were nowhere to be seen when the results were announced early Wednesday afternoon, a couple of hours after they took the test and competed on stage.
The two-part first round of the Spelling Bee involves spelling one word on stage and taking a rigorous, 25-word, multiple-choice test. The contenders get three points for their oral performance and one point for each correct answer on the test.
“This is my first time here,” Taryn said, “I’m nervous and excited, just kind of a mixture of two feelings.”
This was not the first time Taryn competed in a spelling bee, however. She started at the urging of a teacher and won first place in the state fair competition after spelling “enthusiasm.” And then she won the Des Moines Register spelling bee, qualifying for the nationals.
A fan of J.K. Rowling and e.e. cummings, Taryn enjoys math and literature. “I don’t like spelling so much,” said the avid reader. “Almost all the words (in the first round) have been in a Nancy Drew book at some point in some time.”
The Bee is not just about the competition, however. It’s also an opportunity to tour Washington and make new friends. “It’s really nice to meet people who actually have a larger vocabulary,” Taryn said, “you can converse with them without them being, like, ‘what did you just say?’”
The event also provides a forum for the unordinary. “Mishpelt werds eeritate mee,” read one contender’s t-shirt. Canadian spellers wore t-shirts with their country’s name across the chest.
And, there were the odd moments. When New Zealander Kate Ashleigh Weir spelled “eeriness” her accent threw off the judges, who seemed uncertain of what they had heard – arguably “airiness.” Following screeching noises from the speaker system, everyone gathered heard a playback of the exchange, the jury nodded in approval and the viewers erupted in applause.
“Poor girl,” Taryn said, “she was like ‘a, a,’ and you didn’t know if she was saying a or e, because it sounded like a mixture. Sometimes you just have an accent and you can’t help that.”
The bees supported each other during the oral competition, clapping along with the audience after a fellow spelled a word – right or wrong. And as a nervous kid stood on stage – wringing his shirttail, spelling a word on the back of his hand or counting letters with his fingers – the rest nodded, gazed at the blinding spotlight and silently dissected the word.
Meanwhile, the American Literacy Council held a mini-demonstration outside the hotel, hosting the competition, demanding simplified spelling to improve literacy rates in English-speaking countries.
“If we changed basic vocabulary,100 to 200 words, if they were simplified a lot fewer children would get discouraged” in learning how to read and write, said Elizabeth Kvizenga, an English teacher in San Francisco. Suggestions? Try this: U can giv me the donut thru the window.
Of the proper spellers, only 107 made it to the second round – Taryn and Benjamin not among them. In 1946, John McKinney became the fourth and last Iowan to win in the competition. His crowning word: semaphore.
The competition will conclude Thursday, with finalists spelling progressively more difficult words from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. To catch a glimpse, tune in to A-B-C.