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.
“It’s kind of fun,” said Komal during a break. “I’m with my friends.” Yes, it can be nerve-wracking, “but I kind of got over it.” Komal survived early cuts by spelling words like “transect.” She acknowledged that success is sometimes a matter of good fortune, getting easy words. One boy was bounced after misspelling “pelaton,” a term for the main group in a bike race and one so obscure that even The Salem News’ spell-check program hasn’t heard of it.
The youngsters cannily worked for time when encountering tough words. They asked for alternate pronunciations or the origin of a given word. Lydia Sorpol managed to spell “olio,” a phrase relating to the performance of old-fashioned songs. But she stumbled, misspelling “gordita,” a Mexican flatbread.
“One T, Lydia,” Bucey said sadly.
Becca Dunn nearly came undone over the word “condolences,” getting a letter wrong. But before completing her answer by pronouncing the word for a final time, she caught herself. “Oh, wait. Can I start over?” The judges exchanged glances before ruling she hadn’t completed her turn. She got it letter perfect the second try. Condolences were required, however, when she was later asked to spell peccadillo. “Two C’s, Becca,” Bucey lamented.
That left AndeeMae Sims to take the top prize by spelling “benefactor.” It’s the second time in two years that she has been among the three finalists and the first time she took the top prize and a $100 gift card from the mall. She will go to the regional spelling bee ,which gives this daughter of Philippine immigrants the chance to reach the national spelling bee in Washington, D. C.
She might be a little nervous about that, she admitted after the event. But her secret is to “always stay relaxed. Make sure you spell the word right. And know that you’re here for a reason.”
Alan Burke can be reached at email@example.com.