Spelling champ wins title with `sym-bi-osis'

Lime Kiln eighth-grader victorious in a marathon match

March 21, 2007|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,special to the sun

In a contest that was a test of endurance as much as spelling prowess, it was a relatively easy word, symbiosis, that clinched a trip to the Scripps National Spelling Bee for Heather desJardins-Park.

Three hours after the Howard County Library Spelling Bee had begun, seven contestants remained on the Howard High School stage at 10 p.m., having survived nine rounds.

The final 30 minutes of Friday night's competition came down to two spellers - Heather desJardins-Park, an eighth-grader at Lime Kiln Middle School, and Harsha Neerchal, a seventh-grader at Burleigh Manor Middle School.

While they correctly spelled some words - esplanade, fungible, tutelary, hieroglyph, and carpogenous - they also missed a fair share - garrulous, aerobicize, canard, presidio, acerbity - keeping audience members on the edge of their seats as the contest went on and on. The winning speller had to first spell correctly a word that the previous speller had missed, and then correctly spell another word.

Finally, Harsha missed on protrusile, which Heather spelled correctly. After spelling symbiosis correctly, Heather was declared the winner at 10:45 p.m. She earned a $1,000 scholarship and an all-expenses-paid trip to the National Spelling Bee, scheduled for May 30-31 in Washington.

The third annual bee began on a night marked by sleet and snow. Kelli Shimabukuro, a main organizer of the event, said the decision was made to go forward despite poor road conditions because so many people were involved and because rescheduling before the deadline for the national bee would have been difficult.

She noted that one child did not attend, the same number as last year.

The master of ceremonies was Richard W. Story, chief executive officer of the Howard County Economic Development Authority, who asked the audience to make a drumroll sound before introducing the 57 students as they walked on stage, one at a time, their numbers around their necks.

Arvell Greenwood Jr. of the Howard County Library board of trustees told the contestants: "You are all winners tonight. It takes a lot of courage to get up there and participate."

County Executive Ken Ulman took the stage with his daughter, Madeline, and said she has been lobbying for a kindergarten-level spelling bee. Ulman and County Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty declared the day "Howard County Library Spelling Bee Day."

By 7:40 p.m., the competition was under way, with Brian Auger, associate director of the library, reading aloud the words to be spelled, and Diane Mikulis, chairman of the Board of Education, as head judge.

Contestants in grades four through eight qualified for the bee, sponsored by The Sun and organized by the library, by winning competitions in their public or private schools or home-schooling associations. This year's competition had the most contestants, up from 50 in 2006.

Few contestants were knocked out in those early rounds, as they easily rattled off the letters for words including safari, chinchilla, gardener and biopsy. But the words grew more difficult as the rounds progressed.

Spellers were successful with bayou, quinine, synergy and flamenco but stumbled on insidious, mantilla (a scarf worn around the head) and altruism.

Sometimes contestants easily spelled the words, practically floating back to their seats in relief. Other times, they stood in front of the microphone for long, suspense-filled minutes, asking for a definition and the word's origin, then that it be used in a sentence.

Rebecca Fritz, a fifth-grader at Longfellow Elementary School, used her index finger to air-write the words on the back her number card before spelling them out loud. She dropped out in round seven on penicillin.

Emma Boone, a seventh-grader at Harper's Choice Middle School, air-wrote the words on the palm of her hand. She lasted to Round 10, losing on iterative. Theodore Weinberg, a fifth-grader at Jeffers Hill Elementary School, asked for permission to take out his retainer before successfully spelling harpsichord. He was felled in Round 3 by kitsch.

By Round 6, the spelling words that the contestants had studied in advance were depleted. Last year's winner, Joey Haavik, survived to Round 8 but lost on bobolink, a kind of bird. He looked disappointed but graciously said "thank you" into the microphone before walking off stage.

As the night wore on, audience members and contestants who were hungry were probably tortured by words such as casserole, teriyaki, poi (a Hawaiian dish), greengage (a variety of plum), pumpernickel, macadamia and wasabi.

Lance Taweel, a seventh-grader at Hammond Middle School, lasted to Round 11 but seemed astonished the last few times he spelled a word correctly. After acing terrestrial, he put his hands to his mouth and seemed to sag with relief as he took a step backward. It happened again with stalag, a German prison camp, but Lance eventually lost on pecuniary.

By Round 12, three contestants remained - Heather desJardins-Park, Harsha Neerchal and Madeline Studt, a seventh-grader who is home-schooled. Madeline dropped out on comestibles, and the battle for the top prize began.

Harsha aced artesian, lobotomy and affidavit, while Heather correctly spelled poultice, esplanade and aerobicize. Both missed ballyhooed and ineluctable.

Finally, with symbiosis, it was over.

As the two finalists stood on stage, clutching their trophies as friends and well-wishers gathered around, they noted that the contest could have gone either way.

"It was really tough," said Harsha, who collected a $750 scholarship. "When the words get so hard, it just depends on what [word] you get."

"I really didn't expect that I would win," said Heather, who finished in the top four last year. "Most of the words I didn't know because it was off the list. You kind of have to know just the roots."

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