February 2016

Spellbinding

Armani loved spelling bees, had loved them for years. So when she enrolled at MacLaren and found that the school did not hold even one measly bee, she saw, if not evidence of moral turpitude, at least room for improvement.

Feeling that spelling bees should be de rigueur at MacLaren, Armani turned to Ms. Olson, her Literature and Composition teacher, hoping to find a confederate, and found one.

“I was excited to be able to help Armani get something in the school that she wanted and wanted to be invested in,” Ms. Olson says of her interlocutor. “She wanted to make a change in this environment that we could support and that the students could love.”

Six months later, MacLaren is now registered with the Scripps National Spelling Bee, and the winner of our school bee will be attending the regional bee in Denver next month. (More on this in a bit.)

But Ms. Olson needed first to organize classroom bees. Over the past two weeks every middle school class has held one, which yielded a plethora of winners: eleven finalists and eleven runners-up. On the afternoon of February 16, these twenty-two middle schoolers—Armani and two separate pairs of siblings among them—faced off in the Student Center for a postprandial orthographic extravaganza.

The students were not quite bonkers with anxiety, but there were a few worrywarts among them. Some students had searched for spelling words in cyberspace, while others had worked from Scripps’s proprietary lists of words.

Spelling Bee

They were surrounded by the susurrations of their admirers, some of whom bore signs: Go Bridget! and Yay! Spelling! Ms. Olson served as the event’s emcee and umpire. (Her own pedigree in the field is impeccable: a spelling bee champ in elementary school, she mournfully recalls losing on “adequate” in sixth grade.)

Over the course of seven rounds and some ninety-three words, the twenty-two competitors were whittled down to five: a sixth grader, three seventh graders, and one eighth grader. These five finalists met the following afternoon for a spell-off.

“It was exciting to me that it wasn’t just a blowout by eighth graders,” Ms. Olson says.

While the weather was not particularly inclement, things didn’t always go smoothly. A microphone died. Nervous giggles spilled forth at the sound of hoity-toity and cheongsam. But the students were an honorable lot: never vituperative, always paragons of courtesy and comportment.

One student went out on auriferous. Another fell before intransigent. A third lost to longanimity. At the pinnacle of the bee there remained only Kieran and Hailey, both seventh-grade girls.

“The last rounds were very tense,” Ms. Olson recalls. “The final two competitors had to win a round by themselves before they won it, and they couldn’t quite do it.”

Ultimately, Kieran was able secure a victory in the seventeenth round of the MacLaren spelling bee with two consecutive correct words: decennial and blandishment. (She didn’t recognize the winning word, but was able to sound it out.) The accolades from her peers were plentiful, but, never one to act vainglorious, Kieran humbly spent her time cheering for her friends.

“She was clapping every time her competitors got a word right,” Ms. Olson says. “She was genuinely excited for Hailey.”

Kieran will represent MacLaren at the Denver Post Colorado State Spelling Bee on March 12. If she wins, she will go on to the national bee. Only a jackanapes would miss it.

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