To bee, or not to bee

Thursday, March 6, 2014 - 07:19
Students compete in annual spell down

It started out fairly easy: Average. Barely. Mermaid.

Yet a few minutes after the 2014 Alaska State Spelling Bee had begun, the thorny words had surfaced.

Words like bandersnatch.

Those of you who aren’t avid readers of Lewis Caroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” probably don’t know that a bandersnatch is a fictional character or a wildly grotesque or bizarre individual. It’s not a word one uses in everyday conversation.

But then again, neither were the majority of those presented at the bee.

By the second round, the words had become progressively more difficult: Ionized. Voluminous.


The students stood on that vast and lonely stage, leaned toward the microphone, fidgeted their hands around the hem of their lime green spelling bee tee-shirts, and gave it all they had. More and more stumbled and missed.

Then it became almost hideous: Combinatorial. Defeasance.

And (oh dear, oh dear), nincompoop.

Yes, nincompoop was one of the Alaska State Spelling Bee words, and the poor girl who had to spell it nearly dissolved in nervous laughter.

But she got it right, bless her feisty little heart.

By round three, only 43 spellers remained out of the approximately 150 who had begun a few short hours earlier.

Those who had been eliminated gathered their coats and belongings and headed for the door with their parents. Some of them cried, too.

“But I knew the word,” one little girl wailed as her mother patted her softly on the back.

Back in the auditorium, the atmosphere had become more solemn, more serious. Students sat quietly reading novels and scanning spelling lists.

Less than half an hour later, it was down to 25 spellers and three were Chugiak-Eagle River students: Rowan Lewis, from Birchwood ABC Elementary, Ezekial Talon, from Gruening Middle School and Gillian Skidmore, from Chugiak Elementary School.

Talon, an 8th grader, said it was his first year in the state bee.

He likes spelling, likes trying out words he doesn’t know, likes testing himself and seeing how far he can go.

He studied about half an hour a night in preparation for the bee.

“I think I did well,” he said, with a smile. “I’m really proud of myself.”

By the beginning of the fifth round, only 10 spellers were left. By the ninth round, it was down to four.

Lewis, who made it to round five, was sitting in audience with his father and in a chatty mood. A fifth-grader, he hadn’t expected to do as well as he had.

“I just got lucky,” he said. “I knew one of the words from a cartoon Website,” he said.

And the winning word from his school’s spelling bee? He knew from a video game.

“It’s ironic,” he said with a shrug.

Lewis is already looking forward to next year. He plans on following a study plan, too.

“We’re going to train this time all year long,” he said.

Abigail Fitzgibbon of Blatchley Middle School in Sitka won in the 14th or 15th round—by then everyone had pretty much lost track.

Fitzgibbon didn’t expect to win. She didn’t even expect to compete since she had been runner-up at her school’s spelling bee. Three days before the competition, however, the original contestant backed out and Fitzgibbon found herself headed to the bee with almost no practice.

“I became more and more nervous as the competition continued,” she said.

No worries, though, because she won on the word bagatelle.

Fizgibbon was presented the winning trophy by the “Mushing Mortician” Scott Janssen and his sled dog, Marshall.

She’ll represent Alaska at the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. in May.

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