The challenge of a spelling bee is too great for many adults to ignore; and beesides “” it’s fun!
By Terri Blazell
Most of us can recall the word that tripped us up at a school spelling bee. “Necessary” got me. How many Cs and Ss did it have, anyway? Such a common, everyday word, yet I blew it, thus ending my run as sixth grade spelling bee champ of Home Gardens Elementary School. Worse, as I sat there watching my three classmates vie for first, second, and third place, I knew how to spell every word they were given, right up to the end. I still have a small brass pin tucked away in an old jewelry box that reads “Spelling Bee Runner Up.” There is no glory in being a runner-up.
But now, chances to right past wrongs are springing up all over the country. Good old-fashioned spelling bees are not just for kids anymore. Adult spelling bees can be great entertainment at happy hours, fundraisers, and even chapter rallies.
The largest and most renowned adult spelling competition is the AARP National Spelling Bee. Since 1996, spellers age 50 and up have convened in Cheyenne, Wyoming, for this annual event. In 2008, 49 contestants from around the United States participated. The 2007 winner, Sue Hartner from Hillsboro, Oregon, was flown to New York to appear on “The Early Show” on CBS. In 2008, winner Larry Grossman was interviewed on “Good Morning America.”
Entrants at this contest start off early in the morning by taking a 100-word written test just like in school. (No peeking at your neighbor’s work.) The top 15, and sometimes a few more if there is a tie, move on to the finals, or oral rounds. Unlike the Scripps National Spelling Bee for school-age children, contestants are allowed to miss three words before being eliminated. The words get harder as the day goes on. Once it’s down to the top five contestants, it’s on to the Championship Round, and the words are more difficult still.
Where do all those words come from? For the past three years, “Word Wizard” Brian Greene has been choosing the list. He placed 10th his first time participating in the spelling bee and began assisting on the word lists after that. Now he is the only person who compiles the list. “It’s safer that way,” he said. “No one else knows the words except me, so there are no leaks.” He gathers word suggestions and ideas from other members of the spelling bee board; from word lists handed down from other bees; by reading; and, of course, from the dictionary.
“Sometimes the shortest words are more difficult than longer ones,” Mr. Greene said. “‘Crwth,’ a Welsh harp “” five consonants, no vowels “” really tripped people up.” Not all words are exotic, though. He also pulls selections from the “List of Commonly Misspelled Words.”
In all, more than 400 words are selected in varying degrees of difficulty. Originally, only 300 words were chosen for the bee, but they actually ran out one year. Mr. Greene takes no chances now.
So who are these people who will travel hundreds of miles to spell words like “gluhwein” (mulled wine)? Not all of them participated in spelling bees as children, and not all of them deal heavily with words in their professions. However, a large percentage of the contestants are teachers, professors, or those with a science or medical background. Surprisingly, a large number of math teachers take part, such as 2008 winner Larry Grossman.
Mr. Grossman calls himself an “enthusiastic speller.” Along with teaching high school math, he is also the spelling coach for some of his students. Ironically, to prepare for the bee, they became his coaches. Several of his students have gone on to state finals, including his own children. His daughter took third place in the North Dakota State Spelling Bee, and his son was the Pierce County spelling champ for two years running. Larry’s winning word was “debouch,” which means “to emerge.”
Sue Hartner, the 2007 AARP winner, was an eighth-grade county spelling bee champ who went on to take Latin and Greek in high school and college. She is now an administrative assistant in the College of Education at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon. Her winning word was “bharal,” a wild Himalayan sheep. The 2007 second-place winner, Randy Hilfman, never participated in spelling bees as a child but makes a living with words as a copywriter for a major mail-order magazine.
Maybe you’ve always dreamed of competing in a spelling bee, but just never took any action. Pam Leininger of Durango, Colorado, said her inspiration was the movie The Bucket List. She dedicated a year to studying all the words in the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary (the standard for AARP’s bee), averaging four hours a day. She and her very supportive husband drove their RV from Colorado to Cheyenne for her chance at glory in the 2008 bee. She aced the written test and finished in the top 10 in the oral round (the word “sprachgefuhl” got the best of her). Asked if she would come back, Pam replied, “I feel honored to be in this company. Some of the top finishers were a former Scripps spelling coach and past Scripps participants. This is good enough for me. I can cross this off of my bucket list.” Pam added that she feels her brain benefited from the added challenge, a real plus for anyone at any age.
Speaking of “brain food,” each participant prepared for the bee in a different way, which is proof you can choose your own method. Sue Hartner went through the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, wrote down every word that she didn’t know on an index card, and studied words every day. Randy Hilfman read books about spelling, such as Death by Spelling: A Compendium of Tests, Super Tests, and Killer Bees by David Grambs (out of print but available used) and How to Spell Like a Champ by Barrie Trinkle, Carolyn Andrews, and Paige Kimble. Mr. Hilfman also created a spelling notebook of difficult words grouped by subject and language of origin. Larry Grossman filled 384 pages with words he didn’t know and then recorded them onto a CD, pronouncing each word, pausing, and spelling it. He filled 38 CDs.
Others simply took on the task of methodically reviewing the dictionary, which, according to Mr. Hilfman, is “not as daunting as it seems when you think of how many words you already know, and Merriam-Webster is not as long as other dictionaries.”
Scott Firebaugh, of Knoxville, Tennessee, has been a lifelong spelling bee champ and finished third in the 2008 finals. He has started a spelling study group called Speller’s Nation Adult Version. He sends weekly e-mails of unusually spelled words grouped under categories such as “Silent First Letters” and “Homonyms.” He will be happy to e-mail his lists to anyone interested; send a request to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Are these people obsessed? Larry Grossman put it best: “I don’t call it an obsession. I just had a goal and I worked towards it.”
The AARP National Spelling Bee does not require entrants to be AARP members, but they do have to be 50 or older and cannot have been a past AARP National Spelling Bee winner. There are no preliminary spelling bees that you must win to be eligible. The event is typically held in Cheyenne each June over Father’s Day weekend. For detailed information, check out www.seniorspellingbee.com or call (866) 663-3290. RV parking is available at the spelling bee location, but for longer stays, Pam Leininger recommended A.B. Camping in Cheyenne (www.campcheyenne.com; 307-634-7035). (For additional listings, look for FMCA member campgrounds at www.familymotorcoachrvmarketplace.com.)
Even if you’re just a curious non-participant, attending the AARP National Spelling Bee may get your inner child excited about spelling once more.
Bee A Do-It-Yourselfer
All it takes to start your own spelling bee is a location, a word list, and word of mouth. Try organizing a spelling bee as an event in your FMCA chapter, or just among interested friends. Or, use the Internet to find adult spelling bees in your area. Entering “adult spelling bee” in a search engine turns up quite a few listings. Spelling bees are cropping up from New Hampshire to Washington, in schools, libraries, churches, and even bars. Some are one-time events; some are fundraisers; others are monthly, such as the Seattle Spelling Bee.