Spelling bee

Last night I went with a friend to the 11th Annual Adult Spelling Bee, sponsored by the Austin Chronicle and benefitting the Austin Public Library.

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I believe it was my third time going since I moved to Austin. I went several years ago with some friends from work, and didn’t make it past Round 1. In the first round, everyone who registers is given a sheet with 20 words on it, and the objective is to circle all the misspelled words. Faced with this task, suddenly words that are second nature become mysterious. That’s right…no wait, that MUST be wrong. Right? No surprise that it was a challenge.

Then I went back a few years ago by myself and actually made it out of Round 1 and into Round 2. (This also consists of circling misspelled words.) Despite being about words, this is also a bit of a numbers game – if you are surrounded by stellar spellers, then you could get 17 or 18/20 and still possibly not make it to the next round. They take 50 or so people, but if everyone scores high, you have lower chances of advancing. I don’t remember what I got to move onto Round 2, but it was a pretty competitive score. And then the Round 2 list came, and I helplessly giggled. I am an avid reader, have been all my life, have studied multiple languages and have what I believe to be a decent grasp on words – and I had never even seen more than half of the 20 words. Didn’t know those combinations of letters could be put together for meaning, in ANY language. Ah, humility.

This year I decided to attend again. The rain meant loads of traffic driving over, but also resulted in a positive omen in the parking lot –  Threadgills’ pavement showing me some love.


Anywho, I roped in a friend to join me. We met up, nabbed a margarita and some fried foods, and tackled Round 1. I felt pretty good about it, and wound up with 18/20. The funny thing is, I messed up 2 words I was positive about (inoculate and putrefy), and was doubting myself on words I use way more frequently. Embarassment, for example. Spelled wrong – or right? Wrong…right? I wrote it out – “embarass” vs. “embarrass”.  Still doubting. Scritched it out. Wrote “I am so embarassed/embarrassed that I can’t remember how to spell embarassed/embarrassed!” Scritched it out. In the end was positive (but still mildly doubtful, how does that happen?) that there were 2 “r”s involved…as indeed there are.

Round 2 came along, and once again half the words were hypotheticals for me. Caprifig? Perigee? Jeroboam? Canzonet? What?!? I tried to make educated guesses about what letter combinations made sense, conservatively circled some words I thought *might* be misspelled, and I wound up with 17/20. (I also then immediately wrote down the weirdest words so I could look them up later – at least I could learn something from the experience. If you were curious, a “jeroboam” is “a wine bottle with a capacity four times that of an ordinary bottle.”) At first I was sure that would earn a “safe” score – low enough to save me from the stage performance aspect of the evening – but it was not. I was number 10 of 22.

Exciting, but scary. The rules change for Round 3, and it goes back to old-school Spelling Bee protocol. Now I have to spell publicly.

Once we were up on stage, I was skeptical of my ability to stay in the contest even for one more round. I’m a visual person – to spell something out loud is not my preferred mode. They spent what seemed like a lot of time explaining the rules and what would happen when they got down to the last 2 spellers – I tuned out, knowing that wouldn’t be information I needed in future. They gave us a break to grab a drink and hit the loo, and I did both. I felt like an undercover reporter in there, where everyone in line was a contestant. (The giant signs on our chests made it kind of obvious.) The woman behind me starting telling grade school spelling bee war stories about how she missed X word when a young lass, and expressed how happy she was to have a chance to right past wrongs as an adult. She began her story with “a couple/few years ago, when I placed 4th or 5th…” Whoa, people psyching each other out – in the bathroom line?! It may not have been deliberate, but it was entertaining…if you are going to try to psych out the competition, don’t choose the lady who accidentally carried her drink into the bathroom and is sipping on booze while waiting her turn. (Ahem, yes, that was yours truly…and I continued sipping while waiting my turn on stage to spell.)

So back out we go, onto the stage, into our lines of chairs. I felt mildly reassured by the fact that I could spell 8 of the first 9 words – I wasn’t a total poser. Look, in this candid I’m even smiling.


Then I got  introduced (complete with a mispronunciation of my name, doesn’t sound the ways it’s spelled, after all…) and heard my word:  jicama. Really? Jicama. J-i-c-a-m-a. Jicama. That was super easy, ’tis true. Still and all, my friend documented the moment for posterity.


Back to my seat. Round 4 began and a lot of the words were of French origin, so I was pretty comfortable. French I can do. And I was able to spell probably all but 2 or 3 of the first 25-30 words, I figured that was a good sign for my continued success. Then I got my second word, from the Middle English – Wyliecoat.  I spelled it Wyliecote, which is wrong, but at least not gravely embarrassing (2 “r”s, y’all). And I was out. But I didn’t mess up my first word on stage – my only goal once I was up there – and in the I end made it to the top 15 or so of everyone who attended, which will likely be a once-in-a-lifetime sort of thing. My prize bag included 2 tickets to the Paramount Classic Summer Film Series (we all know I’m in on that every year anyway), some Austin Aztex soccer tickets, and a sweet Austin Chronicle koozy – I’m not a Texan, how do you spell that? ; )


The pièce de résistance was leaving the bee to grab some food with my friend and seeing a minivan with the license plate “SPELLR” pull out of the lot. I ran pell mell after it for the money shot, but didn’t manage to catch up in time to snap a pic, alas. We think it was the reigning champion (who won 5 times in the past 10 years, and also competes in the national Scrabble championship), who went out fifth-to-last this year, causing quite the hullaboo with the unexpected fall from grace.


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