I stood behind a microphone in the rickety elementary school gymnasium, clenching and unclenching my sweaty palms as I gazed out at the sea of my cross-legged peers. My elementary school never gave students the dignity of chairs during school-wide assemblies. That privilege was reserved for the teachers and the parents, and even as a fourth grader I felt a healthy amount of righteous indignation about the whole setup. We kids would be taxpayers one day.
The sound of a fifth-grade teacher’s voice snapped me out of my precocious sense of resentment. “Your word is immediately,” he announced. The student body awaited my answer with a dull silence that indicated either bated breath or utter boredom.
“Immediately,” I responded.
Of course I knew how to spell “immediately.” My sister had warned me about “immediately.” My mom had quizzed me on “immediately” as she stirred a boiling pot of pasta with one hand and flipped through a paperback booklet of tricky words with the other. I had typed the word “immediately” in the novels that I used to write, the ones that never reached chapter three. “Immediately” was a softball.
“Immediately,” I said again. “I-m-m-e-d-i-a-t-l-y. Immediately.”
I had worn my fancy velvet pants and lacey pink shirt for nothing—all for fourth place in the elementary school spelling bee. I did not consider participating in a spelling bee again until a couple of weeks ago, when I received an email advertising the Freshman Spelling Bee. I thought about signing up just for the fun of it. But then I remembered that I go to Harvard, so the other participants had probably won international bees before I learned how to read. I decided that I better not sign up.
I made a good decision. The winner, Reed Shafer-Ray ’18, came in second at the Oklahoma Spelling Bee as an eighth-grader. The runner-up, Thomas Dumbach ’18, competed in the Scripps National Spelling Bee in 2010. Evan M. O’Dorney ’15, who helped host the freshman bee, won the nationwide Scripps competition in 2007. (Did I mention that I got a really shiny blue ribbon for coming in fourth in the elementary school contest?)
But I still got a kick out of the bee as an audience member. The event was really a hoot—Dean of Freshmen Thomas A. Dingman ’67, lecturer in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology Andrew Berry, and lecturer in Chemistry Gregory Tucci served as judges, and about 10 brave freshmen decided that they were up for the challenge of participating. When a speller nailed a word, the audience whooped and cheered. When a speller missed a word, one of the hosts banged a large gong that reverberated with a mighty thud of disapproval. The bee lasted for rounds and rounds of words.
“I realized pretty quickly that all the words for this came from a list that Scripps gives out to prepare for the national bee, so I had studied all of these words in 7th and 8th grade,” Dumbach said.
As the competition progressed, a couple of participants mimed writing their words out on their hands. But don’t expect to see Shafer-Ray using his foot to figure out the spellings a lá “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” “I don’t like psyching myself out,” he said. “I feel like sometimes if you think about it too much you start to psych yourself out, so I don’t really have a routine. I just like to take it slow.”
The playful night was punctuated with particularly lighthearted moments. The definition of “tokamark” included the word “toroidal” (as if that helped). Harvard Hall 201 was alive with “The Sound of Music” twice, once when “fräulein” popped up and again when “edelweiss” made an appearance.
At one point, Berry asked a participant to spell “recalcitrant,” and the speller asked for the defini- tion of the word. “‘Recalcitrant,’” Berry said. “‘Stubbornly refusing to follow rules or orders,’ like many of you.”
When all was said and done, Abby Ducker’18 and Mason Hale ’18 tied for third, Dumbach claimed second place, and Shafer-Ray emerged victorious with the word “cappelletti” (a type of pasta, for those among us who have not yet mastered the dictionary). As prizes, the four winners received celebratory T-shirts, and Shafer-Ray walked away with the coveted bee hat—in the shape of an actual bee—which is sure to be a hit at parties.
And as for me? I was left reminiscing about the not-so-glorious days of fourth grade, wondering whether I still have that shiny blue fourth-place ribbon and reassuring myself that I will never misspell “immediately” again.