At the end, it was like a tennis match between masters, answering volley after volley. Only in this case, it was spelling, and instead of two players it was three, standing at the microphone at Northshore Mall for the fourth annual Peabody Higgins Middle School Spelling Bee.
Sixth-grader Lydia Sorpol, who maintained a determined, serious demeanor, was battling with two eighth-graders. A cheerful Becca Dunn always gave her opponent a happy, good-luck slap of hands before watching her head to the mic. Seemingly relaxed, each time she spelled, AndeeMae Sims looked off into space while forming a phantom word with one finger on her oversized name tag.
They went round after round, rattling off the spelling for easy words — “sultan,” “watery” and “spartan” — as well as words like “quinine,” “persimmons” and “rhetoric.”
A crowd of at least 200 people came to watch the event, sponsored by the Peabody Educational Foundation, on the lower level of the Northshore Mall. Among the judges were Mayor Ted Bettencourt, city councilors Dave Gravel and Tom Gould, and Higgins Principal Todd Bucey, who asked the words. Numerous councilors and school board members gathered, as well.
For months, the students had studied for the event.
“We have a list of words we go over,” said eighth-grade English teacher Dan Arsnow. “And we go over study skills.” He said he tells his classes, “If you can’t spell it right, you’re not going to get very far.”
Beth and Kevin Barrett, watching hopefully from the back, had come to see daughter Alexandra. “She’s a straight-A student,” Beth said. At night, Kevin had been reviewing a list of words with Alexandra.
Bindy Patel used her camera to record the efforts of daughter Komal Patel, who survived the cutdown from 30 contestants to 10, all girls. A native of India, the proud mom was at a loss to explain her daughter’s success, except to say she likes school.