We were all pretty gosh-darn nervous, sitting up there on the stage at the Jamesport Meeting House Friday night, waiting to hear the words we were about to spell.
There were 24 of us. Some of us were doctors and lawyers and ex-town supervisors. Some were community activists. Some had Ph.Ds. There were eighth graders (who presumably know more about spelling than the rest of us) and a student in Jeff “Doc” Greenberger’s Latin class at Riverhead High School. Our common mission was to raise money for the upkeep and preservation of the Jamesport Meeting House at their first-ever Community Spelling Bee.
But fundraising was the last thing on our minds as we faced the great white expanse of the Meeting House’s walls, and the packed crowd of spectators waiting to cheer us on, and, up in front, the recently-retired Rev. George Gaffga of Mattituck, sitting like an attorney at the defendant’s table, with a little library bell, waiting to judge our spelling.
Rev. Gaffga even had the good book sitting in front of him, and he seemed to be in a judgmental mood. The good book had the words “Merriam” and “Webster” on the front cover. It was like no good book I have ever seen before.
Turns out, Doc Greenberger was in charge of the words, and, straight out of the gate, we were all in trouble. The first round was supposed to be the baby round — a word went around until either someone spelled it right or we’d all had a chance to try. If we spelled the word right, we’d get a point. If we spelled it wrong, we lost a point. The people with the most points would advance to the second round, where they’d be forced out of the running for every misspelled word.
But there was nothing babyish about the words we were meted out. We started with “kinkajou,” which, if you didn’t know it, is a strange raccoon-like animal that lives in the South American rainforest.
In the first round, we had these neat little cards that the helpers handed out at the beginning, which we could use to take a pass if we really didn’t want to spell a word. When the first three words rolled out, people began throwing their cards at Doc. From kinkajou, we went on to such gems as halieutics (a treatise on the art of fishing), haartebeest (some sort of South African animal), and fuliginous (sooty).
Only one woman, seated quietly in the back row, seemed to know how to handle this. Somehow, nearly every impossible word that made the rounds ended up on her lap. She twitched her nose and then bravely stood, sounded the word out, traced on her inner arm with her fingernail, and then carefully and correctly spelled words she’d never heard before. I’ve never seen such talent, such poise in the face of pressure.
Her name was Sarah Bowe and we could all tell early on that she would redeem the whole lot of us lousy spellers.
The impossible words kept coming. It was punishing. It was brutal. It was agony. Our whole second row, lucky to have the first row of contestants between ourselves and the audience, held our heads in our hands and groaned at each new word. When the first round ended, I ran off the stage, grateful to have been disqualified in the first round.
Then, something happened. Either the words became easier or the heavens shined on the people who were left, but back in the audience, seated with my notebook, the correct spelling suddenly became clear. I spelled along as the winners spelled such words as “oryx,” “eschewal,” and “jejune.”
Joe McKay, who later won the award for collecting the most sponsors over at Peconic Landing, brandished his bright green “Spelling Beast” t-shirt in the final round, but “oryx” stumped him and he stumbled off the stage, spent.
Carol Grzywinski spelled “ptomaine” right but managed to botch “rime.” It was good enough for a third place trophy.
Beth Motschenbacher, the assistant director over at the Hallockville Museum Farm, was asked to spell “guernsey,” which is a kind of cow. You could see her up there, on stage, realizing that the assistant director of Hallockville had better be able to spell the name of a cow. She prevailed over “guernsey,” but “parrhesia” stumped her and she made it home with the second place trophy.
The magical Sarah Bowe somehow managed to spell nidifugous right on the first try. A nidifugous bird is one that leaves the nest early (in case you wanted to know). Then she somehow managed to spelled “peirastic” correctly. I’ve been trying to figure out how to explain what peirastic means all morning, and I give up. “Bibelot” put her over the top and she took home the crown.
I walked up to the winners after the Bee and demanded to know the secret to their success. Carol said she’d been in a spelling bee in the eighth grade, but that was a long time ago. Beth had never tried her hand at a spelling bee before. And Sarah, well, she decided to come down and compete because she wanted to show her kids they should try new things.
There were an awful lot of people around to cheer the contestants up after the bee. Some of us agreed that Doc had been either malicious or malevolent (couldn’t decide which) in his choice of so many arcane words. But we agreed that the tough words gave us all the more reason to study up before next year’s bee.
And we realized that the one word we all really learned how to spell was community. It was worth it.