This week I had the pleasure of watching from the sidelines as a dramatic competition unfolded before me, a battle of will and skill, where endless practice culminated in a succession of pressure-filled moments with no margin for error.
It was the fifth-grade spelling bee at Orin Smith Elementary School, and it was quite a contest.
This was the school’s first spelling bee since 2019. The pandemic sidelined the competitions in 2020 and 2021. This was also the first spelling bee in the new elementary school. The previous bee was held in Olympic Elementary across the street.
What hasn’t changed over the years and across the interruption of COVID-19 was how seriously the students took it — both the contestants and their peers watching from the bleachers.
Twenty-seven students, the champions from their individual classrooms, lined up at the front of the gym as each of their names were announced.
You could see hints of the personalities — there were the three boys in a row who walked in like champions, flexing their arms and holding them up to acknowledge the applause of the crowd. They were followed by girls who took each step carefully, minutely aware of their public exposure, as meek and self-conscious as the boys ahead of them were eager to bathe in attention.
There was a boy who tripped on the way in but picked himself up and went on to place in the top five of the competition. I admired his poise and focus after an inauspicious entrance.
The first words were straightforward: Empty, Mountain, Even, Says. The first misspelling came on “juice.” The next outage came on “known” and then on “surprise.”
The words jumped up a notch the next road: Engineer. Envelope. Among. The kid who had fallen spells “parents” correctly. He wears a huge braces-filled grin as he heads back to the end of the line, fist-bumping with a buddy.
The next word is “awful.” A girl in a stylish outfit pauses and looks around. We all wait in silence. One of the judges smiles at her and says quietly, “deep breath.” She is still waiting and thinking. The room is silent. I’m wishing she’d ask for it in a sentence. She does her best but gets it wrong. Clearly disappointed, she walks back to her seat to applause from her peers for her effort and a comforting side-hug from the principal.
The next boy misspells “curtain” and the one after him misses on “receive.” A few kids still in line give him somber high-fives as he heads back to his chair. The next kid misses on “review.” As he heads to sit down, his friends hold out their hands to give him five. He puts his head down and they muss his hair as he passes — smiles amid the disappointment.
The words continue to ramp up: Width. Necessary. Splendid.
After the correct spelling of “attention,” a boy is all smiles, clenching and shaking his fists quietly in joy.
After correctly spelling “preliminary,” a girl grins in amazement after slowly and carefully working it out.
After the misspelling of “governor,” half the contestants are gone. We lose more at “commercial,” “receipt” and “essential.”
After being given “accumulation,” the boy who had tripped on the way in is wobbling from side to side at the microphone, taking each letter slowly and carefully at first before racing to the finish. The crowd gasps and whooshes in delight and support. The next kid misses on “society,” which brings the number of remaining contestants down to five. They’ll all make the school-wide bee next week, representing their grade level.
The crowd applauds the finalists. Several of them turn to their peers who had to sit back down. Their eyes seem to say “I’m sorry I’m here without you, buddy.”
The difficulty ramps up. We encounter the first word of the day that, if I’m being honest, I probably would have gotten wrong: “Desirable.”
Three students are left now. They plow through the words: Dissolution. Dialogue. Encouragement.
The correct spelling of “evaluation” wows the crowd. At “extraneous” we hear “Oooooh! Oh my gosh” from the pupils.
Finally a student goes out at “abbreviate.” Now there were two.
The crowd titters at the correct spelling of “aesthetic.” The next word is “anonymous.” The speller is so quiet we can’t hear her in the audience, but after a long pause and completion she is told she got it wrong.
The last boy standing has to correctly spell that word, plus one more, to win. That’s the rule: spell two correctly in a row to take the prize.
He gets “anonymous” and is given “antagonist.” He nails it.
We have a champion! The crowd goes nuts.
“Oh my gosh, was that intense or what?” the principal says.
She invites all 27 of the finalists to stand and be recognized. One of the girls waves at the crowd pageant-style.
As the kids file back to their classrooms, the day’s office pronouncer, Richard Gilham, who carefully gave each student their word, says the school has been buzzing with excitement for weeks as class-by-class competitions led to this grade-level content, and next week’s school-wide championship.
“It’s electric,” Gilham said. “You can feel the tension.”
With respectful students cheering on their peers in a game of academic skill that was every bit as intense as the hardest-fought football game, and with students giving it their all after months of preparation, there were a lot of winners in that gymnasium.
Can you spell E-X-C-E-L-L-E-N-C-E?
Brian Mittge was a proud dad in that gym. What was the word you went out on in grade school? Let him know at firstname.lastname@example.org.