Like prizefighters in a battle royale of spelling Saturday, young competitors from across the Fredericksburg region squared off for two hours and 16 rounds.
When all was said and done, the winner of the Fredericksburg Regional Spelling Bee was Evan Hunter of Marshall Middle School in Fauquier County.
The 16 youngsters in grades 4–8 in the bee at James Monroe High School had every look you could find in the schools and home-taught constituencies they represented.
Short or tall, blue-jeaned or suit-and-tied, with hair curly, straight or braided, the nine boys and seven girls sat statue-still or wiggled their way through the event sponsored by The Free Lance–Star and the Central Rappahannock Regional Library.
But when one practice round was finished, things got downright serious for the students representing public and parochial schools or home-taught students in Caroline, Colonial Beach, Culpeper, Fauquier, Fredericksburg, Spotsylvania, King George, Orange, Stafford and Westmoreland.
Called up to microphones at the front of the stage, the youngsters sweated their way letter by letter with words that got more difficult to spell as the bee progressed.
Sure, things seemed simple enough in the early rounds, when the words came off a list the bee participants were allowed to study ahead of time.
That, and the skill of the competitors, is why none of the spellers—in responses ranging from nervous whispers to strong statements—missed a single word in Rounds 1–3.
And only six of the competitive spellers missed words in Rounds 4–9, tumbling out by misplacing a letter or two in the words “jackal,” “knish,” “Romaji,” “commissar,” “mandir” and “cappelletti.”
On most every word, the youngsters asked the bee’s official pronouncer—Paul Fallon, an associate professor of linguistics at the University of Mary Washington—for the alternate pronunciations, definitions, word origins or to hear the word used in a sentence.
Some, like competitor Noah Blaine from Sycamore Park Elementary School in Culpeper, seemed to get help from his questions. Others seemed to use them for more time to puzzle out a spelling.
One competitor—Kaitlyn Shackleton of Prospect Heights Middle School in Orange County—used sign language to sign every letter of her words as she also spoke them out loud.
She explained later that she signs the words as she learns and practices them, with “the muscle memory” of signing helping her to remember them.
Other competitors mimicked writing words out with their hands at the mike, while a few simply wiggled their fingers as a way to burn off nervous energy.
Fallon explained to the audience at the start of Round 10 that because so many spellers were still in play, he was shifting to more difficult words that hadn’t been on the competitors’ list of words to study.
That made a difference, as four spellers misspelled their words in that round, and then six did the same in Round 11.
Because all of the spellers in that round misspelled their words, all six of those competitors got to move on to Round 12, where three spellers went down on the words “executrix,” “tillage” and “embayment.”
When another speller missed the word “purveyor” in Round 13, that left Evan and H.H. Poole Middle School student Caitlin McIllece as the last two standing. She misspelled “chinos” in Round 15, making Evan the champion when he correctly spelled “meritocracy” in the following championship round.
After the bee, Evan pointed out that there was a certain irony in his win, as he was an alternate, only taking part in the bee because another student from Fauquier couldn’t attend.
But that didn’t make him any less ecstatic, explaining that he has “an almost photographic memory” that helps him remember words.
Evan noted that while he’s glad to have done well in the spelling bee, his real forte is geography, and he’ll take part in the state’s geography bee later this year.
He said he hopes to one day become a college professor, possibly teaching world history, which he has a passion for. The middle school student says he also has a knack for math, and has already studied calculus to the point where he’s looking for his next challenge.
Though he was the winner, he was humble to the last.
“Honestly, I had to guess on some of those words,” he said.
Evan and Caitlin were awarded trophies as the winner and runner-up.
As the top finisher, Evan also receives an all-expense paid trip to attend Scripps National Bee Week at Gaylord National Resort near Washington, D.C., starting May 26, as well as a $599 check to pay for expenses while there. The competition begins May 27.
He also will get one-year subscriptions to Merriam–Webster Unabridged dictionary online and Encyclopedia Britannica online, and the Samuel Louis Sugarman award, donated by Jay Sugarman, which includes a 2019 U.S. Mint proof set.
All spellers in the bee received a gift bag that included gift cards donated by Fun–Land and water park passes donated by the Rappahannock Area YMCA.
Honestly, I had to guess on some of those words. —EVAN HUNTER,
REGIONAL BEE WINNER