Ol' Factory Cafe reminds us why we love spelling bees.
Thursday, December 13, 2007
Americans are infatuated with spelling bees. It’s the reason the National Spelling Bee is broadcast nationally on ESPN every year. It helps explain why the intellectual competition is featured in the 2002 Oscar-nominated documentary Spellbound, the current Broadway musical comedy and multiple Tony Award-winner The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and two recent feature films, 2005’s Bee Season and 2006’s Akeelah and the Bee.
Thursdays at the Ol’ Factory Café reinvigorate the appeal of testing spelling against others in a public forum. Eager to experience the rush of spelling a word correctly in front of a crowd, I signed up for the event, which is co-hosted by Ol’ Factory owner Morgan Christopher and local poet Garland Thompson.
With a full crowd of onlookers, Thompson explained the basic rules to the 18 competitors. Every contestant would be given a word to spell by Christopher. They would be able to ask the word’s place of origin, its definition and an example of its use in a sentence. No time limit would apply, and all competitors would have to say the word, spell it correctly and then say it one last time to move on to the next round. A special twist on the rules allowed the first person eliminated from the spelling bee to be awarded a free beer.
“It’s pretty simple,” Thompson said. “We are just spelling words.”
As the first contestant, A.J., strode toward the microphone, Christopher admitted that the first round would probably eliminate few. “The first round is the confidence-building round,” he announced, adding the first word of the evening would be “cow.” “Cow,” A.J. repeated. “C-O-W. Cow.”
Later a man named Darren tried to throw the contest for a free beer. “Germany,” he said. “J-E-R-M-A-N-Y.”
But Christopher and Thompson didn’t buy it. “You move to the second round,” Thompson said.
After my fellow spellers nailed grammar school words like “cat” and “bird,” it was my turn. Unfortunately, Thompson revealed that I was a member of the local media, which made me realize I would look pitiful if I muffed the spelling of a simple word.
“Newspaper,” Christopher said.
I definitely knew how to spell the word “newspaper,” only it was a lot harder to spell it in front of a crowd without the chalkboard the ESPN competitors can use and the sense that spell check has made me weak.
“Newspaper,” I said. “N-E-W-S-P-A-P-E-R. Newspaper.”
Christopher rang the buzzer indicating I had spelled the word correctly. I took a seat knowing that I was not a total embarrassment to the journalism profession.
Following a few more lobs, we moved on to the second round. A.J. asked Christopher to use the first word of the next round in a sentence. “The teacher was hard to understand because she was feeling a little hoarse,” Christopher said.
A female contestant going by the name of “Pleasure” lodged a complaint. “The sentence was ambiguous,” she said, “she could have been petting a pony.”
As the competition heated up, all eyes trained upon a middle-aged man with glasses named David Riddle. It is said by another competitor that Riddle has never misspelled a word at the Sand City Spelling Bee. Turns out that his impressive spelling ability runs in the family: Riddle’s son, Christoph, won the Monterey County Spelling Bee in 2004 and competed in the National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., that year.
In the third round, though, Riddle goes down unexpectedly by misspelling “minuscule.” (Riddle would later e-mail word to the Weekly that his spelling was an acceptable variant according to Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary.) Now, it’s truly anyone’s game.
By the fifth and sixth round, words I have never heard spelled, including “filamentary” and “etiolation,” have intensified the bee. There are only five remaining competitors when I walk up to the microphone and am asked to spell “Fahrenheit.” “Fahrenheit,” I say, feeling good about my chances. “F-A-R-E-N-H-E-I-T. Fahrenheit.”
I immediately hear what I have been fearing all evening: the sound of Christopher’s kazoo. “You haven’t read Fahrenheit 451 in a while,” Thompson says as I take my seat.
“You’ll never spell that word wrong again,” Pleasure tells me.
I watch as the competitors dwindle. Malin Pinsky, a second-year doctoral student at the John Hopkins Marine Lab, eventually takes the title by correctly spelling “bituminous.” It represented a heck of a comeback: Pinsky’s previous go at a spelling bee title was back in fourth grade when he was eliminated for misspelling “easel.” He says he hasn’t misspelled that word since.