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STAFF COLUMN: There's nothing quite like the spelling bee

Julie Barichello
Julie Barichello

As a night shift worker, there aren't many things that get me out of bed at 7:45 a.m. on a Saturday.

But each February, my favorite weekend arrives on the calendar. No matter how much I yawn or how baggy my eyes, I roll out of bed so I can spend my Saturday morning at Ottawa High School watching the best spectator event of the year:

The La Salle, Marshall and Putnam Regional Spelling Bee.

When it comes to February spectator events, I would bet most people pick the Super Bowl. After all, it had more than 103 million viewers in 2018. I'd be surprised if our regional spelling bee attracted 100 viewers. But of the two events, the bee is beyond question my f-a-v-o-r-i-t-e.

The 59th regional spelling bee took place this past Saturday with 30 junior high students from La Salle, Marshall and Putnam counties competing for a chance to advance to the Grand Finals next month in Peoria. A small crowd of educators, news staff, and competitors' families and supporters filled the front rows of Ottawa High's auditorium for two hours and 16 rounds to hear 144 words spelled.

There's not a lot of action in a spelling bee — mostly just walking across the stage and adjusting the microphone — but don't let that fool you.

These students have trained. They've dedicated hours to practice. They exercise a mental athleticism by juggling 26 letters to form one of the 171,476 words in the English language.

It's an impressive feat.

As a spectator at the spelling bee, I have the advantage of playing along without any of the pressure. I keep a notebook and pen handy, and with each word announced, I write it down. Then I wait to see if I spelled it correctly.

There's some suspense involved. I hold my breath every time the student on stage diverges from the spelling I have on paper. I think, "I hope I spelled it right." That's drowned out by a second internal voice saying, "I hope they spell it right."

That's an interesting variation from being a bee spectator opposed to a sports spectator. In a bee, you're rooting for every candidate simultaneously. Even though only one speller can win, you never want to see someone walk away from the microphone in defeat.

I never cease to be amazed at the spelling prowess of people 20 years younger than me. As I wrote each word in my notebook this year, I discovered I would have been eliminated on the word muumuu — but not the contestant on stage. She breezed through it effortlessly.

Praline tripped me up, too. Again, the speller onstage got it right.

I'm a "Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy!" addict, so events like a spelling bee are an engaging challenge. It's fun to quiz myself, particularly when there are no stakes.

Despite the lack of stakes for the spectator, there is an emotional investment. By the time the second round begins, you'll be biting your lip at every speller's hesitation and try to telepathically communicate letters with their every mid-word pause. And for every misplaced L and forgotten M, you'll be wishing you had the Oxford English Dictionary on speed dial to make them revise a spelling i-m-m-e-d-i-a-t-e-l-y.

If you're a crossword puzzler, a "Wheel of Fortune" solver, a reader, a word lover ... come to the bee next year. Challenge your spelling skills. Clap for the contestants.

I'll be up bright and early to be there.

JULIE BARICHELLO is an assistant editor for The Times. To contact her, call 815-431-4072 or email jbarichello@shawmedia.com.

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