Chippewa Herald * March 1, 2006

These bees can keep you spellbound

by Tom Arneberg, Community Columnist

Over Christmas break, my brother brought over a video called "Spellbound" (subtitle: "Little kids. Big words. American dreams."). Spellbound is a documentary that follows eight regional champions who were all competing at the 2002 National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C.

Despite the seemingly dry subject material, the movie kept us...uh, captivated. It is a great study of human nature. Having never seen a live spelling bee, however, I didn't think this topic would apply to real life.

My third child, Jasper, proved me wrong only a few weeks later. Inspired by the movie, he went on to win the spelling bee at Christ Lutheran School. On February 9, he competed against champs from the other parochial schools in our district. Amazingly, he won that one, too!

We were on our way to the "big leagues" -- the February 22 regional competition in Spencer, Wisconsin. In addition to my wife Beth and me, our fan club included the alternate (second place) Jamie Krause and his mom, Libby Krause (who just happens to be one of the loyal proofreaders of this very column), and the boys' 6th-grade teacher, Bridget Ericksen. (Yes, not only were the #1 and #2 finishers for our district from the same school, they are from the same class! And in fact, Jasper and Jamie have been good friends and fierce competitors since birth.)

Spencer, sixteen miles south of Abbotsford, hosted the competition in their new school auditorium. After a nice breakfast in the cafeteria, we started filing into the seats. The first thing we did, of course, was check the program for errors. (How else do you warm up for a spelling bee?) Right there on page two, the credits included a school "Adminstrator." It was all we could do to stop ourselves from asking the emcee if that would be one of the words in the contest.

We heard from last year's champ, Rachael Taylor, and were introduced to Trevor Mahoney, a senior at Loyal High School who went all the way to Washington, D.C. in 2002. Believe it or not, the national finals are broadcast live on ESPN!

Round One began with mostly easy words. Jasper's first word was "parentage," and though he may have never used that word, he did spell it correctly. One down.

Only one kid got out in the first round. As soon as the emcee read the word "frugal," my mind immediately jumped to Google's new web site for finding deals on the internet. Much to my surprise, the poor boy actually spelled out the web address: "F-R-O-O-G-L-E." Ouch. I guess that's the power of the media.

Round Two was equally tame. Jasper spelled "siege," and only one other boy dropped out. (He added a "d" to "neutralize"...which didn't seem fair, but I guess you need to listen carefully to the example sentence.)

Round Three started getting interesting: glycogen, corpuscle, rive, and umbilical were some of the words. I was taking my own test along with the students, and the only word I wasn't entirely sure of was "roan" vs. "rone."

At the end of Round Three, the 38 competitors were reduced to twelve. Jasper was still in! The top eight kids go on to Madison -- four competitors and four alternates. He was getting close!

There were even tougher words in Round Four: amorphous, tetrahedral, patrician, lackadaisical. I was still doing well in my own silent contest. Now there were only NINE spellers left! If ONE MORE kid gets eliminated, we get to go to Madison! Woo-hoo! Man, were we excited.

Then came the bombshell: "DEM-i-zhan." What?! I had no clue what that word was. For the first time in the contest, I was totally stumped.

And so, unfortunately, was Jasper, as it happened to be his turn.

Thankfully, I had explained to my son before the contest began that there is definitely an element of luck in spelling bees. Who would've thunk that the hardest word (at least for me) would be on his turn? But that's part of the game.

We did take some solace that the words kept getting harder in Rounds Five and Six: homogeneous, narcissus, ocular, sphincter, and ecru. Surprisingly, though, there were still some easy words words sprinkled in there, like nix, loathe, and tundra, each of which brought a grimace to Jasper's face as he wished with all his might that he would've gotten any of those words instead of "demijohn."

By Round Nine it was down to the last two students. They battled with insurrection, minuend, octopod, Caesar, prosody and others, until the winner emerged by correctly spelling "musicale" and "tetchy."

The champion of the CESA 10 Regional Spelling Bee was RJ Struve of Cadott. Good luck to RJ and the other competitors who will go on to Madison for state competition.

We had a great time with our first season of spelling bees -- watching that "Spellbound" movie really worked! Maybe next Christmas we'll rent a movie about kids who love to take out the trash and shovel the driveway.


( See photos of the regional spelling bee.)

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