Last year, seventh-grader Heather desJardins-Park was beaten by a leviathan -- the word, that is.
DesJardins-Park, now an eighth-grader at Lime Kiln Middle School, misspelled the word after making it to the final four in last year's Howard County Library Spelling Bee. The competition was won by Joey Haavik, a fifth-grader at Pointers Run Elementary School, who correctly spelled the word Zoroastrian (an ancient religion). The two are heading to the bee again this year, and Heather is in it to win.
"Last year, I was like, eh, it's not such a big deal," she said. "But it was."
Heather and her sister, Caroline desJardins-Park, a fifth-grader at Fulton Elementary School, have been studying "a lot more this year," Heather said. The two girls were the only sibling pair to qualify for the library spelling bee last year, and both have qualified again.
"I think they're just naturally good at spelling," said their mother, Marie desJardins, a computer science professor at UMBC. "I was also good at spelling, even when I was little, and I think they inherited it."
The good-natured competition sometimes leaves the world of spelling: When Heather bumped into Joey at the Columbia Gym recently, Marie desJardins said, "they didn't have a war of words, but she was trying to lift more weights than he was."
The third Howard County Library Spelling Bee -- scheduled for 7 p.m. Friday at Howard High School -- will feature 58 participants, up from 50 last year, said Kelli Shimabukuro, the library's community education and partnership coordinator and a main organizer of the event. That is because more county schools held spelling bees this year, she said.
The bee is organized under the rules of the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee and is sponsored by the library and The Sun. To qualify, students in grades four through eight must win their school spelling bees. The winner of Friday's spelling bee will receive $1,000 and an all-expense-paid trip to the national spelling bee in Washington, scheduled for May 30-31.
This year, the "pronouncer," the person who states the words to be spelled, will be Brian Auger, the library's associate director. Richard W. Story, chief executive officer of the Howard County Economic Development Authority, will be master of ceremonies, as he was last year. The head judge will be Diane Mikulis, chairman of the Howard County Board of Education.
Competitors will come from public and private schools, and some are home-schooled, including Madeline Studt, 13, who bested about 35 others in a competition organized by Howard County Home Educators.
Something new this year, said Shimabukuro, is the Bumble Bee contest, for students in grades one through three. "The purpose of the Bumble Bee," she said, " is basically to help younger students prepare for the Howard County Library Spelling Bee when they're in fourth grade. We found that a lot of children may be nervous, or don't know what questions to ask when they come on stage."
Three schools participated in the Bumble Bee, and eight students were declared winners: Ryan Gregrich, Miles Warren and Gifty Adjei-Poku of Cradlerock; Amber Hunt, Punit Patel and Deja Allen of Forest Ridge; and Caroline Boone and Alexis Cronin of Swansfield.
The library held a celebration for the young spellers Monday, with awards and cake.
But the older kids have a way to go before they can celebrate. Most nights, the desJardins-Park sisters practice their words at dinner, and their mother puts a check mark next to words they don't know.
As of the most recent run-through, Heather needed to work on six words and Caroline about 50. The official study booklet -- called Spell It! -- contains more than 700 words, grouping them by origin, and includes spelling tips and definitions.
"A lot of spelling is memorization, but a lot of it is understanding what words mean and the etymologies of words," said desJardins.
Last year, the girls were not as serious about the contest, their mother said. "This year, they both said they really wanted to go through the whole book."
"I studied a lot more this year, so I might get farther," said Caroline, who was one of the few fourth-graders to compete last year and survived several rounds. She does not expect to beat her sister, though.
Still, if one of her daughters gets to the national bee, desJardins said she is not sure how seriously she will take it.
"The studying is very different, and the preparation is very different," she said. "Some of the kids study for hours every day. That's not really our style."
Last year, Joey, now a sixth-grader at Clarksville Middle School, survived to the second round of the national event, but had to leave the competition when he misspelled the word novercal, meaning "characteristic of a stepmother."