Buzz for the Bee

Student at Friends makes spelling cool

May 30, 2007|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,Sun reporter

It took a full marching band, more than one official resolution, a Baltimore Raven and two busloads of screaming sixth-graders to properly send Baltimore's first world-class speller in at least a generation off to The Big Show.

David Brokaw, a Friends School sixth-grader with bright eyes and circumspect grin, is headed to Washington for the National Spelling Bee, where today he'll face some serious c-o-m-p-e-t-i-t-i-o-n.

He'll be Baltimore's first representative at the esteemed contest of words in 25 years and one of the few city students ever to compete there.

"I don't really want to tense out because I want to be able to spell well," David said in front of City Hall after the energetic rally, before his mom and dad drove him to Washington. "But it's cool just to go."

A couple of months ago David became Baltimore's top speller by mastering the word carmine. That, he'll explain to anyone who asks, is a shade of red.

At the national bee, the words get more sophisticated, as does the competition. Last year the victor triumphed with Ursprache - a reconstructed parent language such as Proto-Germanic, according to Webster's. In 2005, winning took an understanding of appoggiatura.

David will be trying to out-spell 286 contenders from across the country. With most of the contestants in seventh or eighth grade, he'll be one of just 28 11-year-olds vying for the title.

At yesterday's rally, city officials shook David's hand, his English teacher spoke of his unquenchable curiosity and his principal mentioned that David might be one of the few sixth-graders he knows who can toss off terms like Pavlovian and know what he's talking about.

While the Frederick Douglass High School marching band played for him and classmates screamed his name, David shoved his hands in the pockets of his shorts, a little closed-mouth smile playing on his lips.

This placidity - even in the heat of competition - inspired Ravens tight end Daniel Wilcox, a judge for the citywide bee, to nickname the sixth-grader.

"You been as cool as ice," the diamond-bedecked Raven told the boy. "It's my man, David `Iceman' Brokaw."

David's mom confessed that her son isn't much of a sports fan. He is, however, in love with reading, sometimes plowing through the newspaper and then a book a week - everything from Harry Potter to science fiction.

"I would call him a rugged, creative individualist, but not a straight-A student," said Laura Brokaw, a former city prosecutor, who filmed the rally with a hand-held video camera. She says the spelling gene definitely doesn't come from her - and probably doesn't come from his father, Peter Brokaw, a stockbroker.

Susan Johnston, David's English teacher, guesses it's the reading, along with her student's natural smarts, decent memory and wide-ranging interest in the world.

"I think that's what sets him apart, makes him more than just a kid who's good at spelling" she said. "He's a quirky little kid who just accumulates knowledge."

Though these days the invention of computerized misspelling catchers has cut somewhat into spelling's former power position on the curriculum, it's still an art with a big fan club and even a little mystique. Particularly when it comes to the bee.

With movies like Spellbound, Bee Season and Akeelah and the Bee, the cerebral competition has gained a degree of c-a-c-h-e-t.

Baltimore revived the long-dormant bee tradition last year, when Catapult, a local online tutoring company, offered to sponsor it.

Local historian Gilbert Sandler couldn't be happier that the place that once claimed to be "the city that reads" is giving academic achievement its proper due.

"The city that spells," he said. "That would make us all feel a great pride."

Before the rally, City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke revealed that she once entertained ambitions of competitive spelling - that is, until she lost her eighth-grade bee with the word acquittal.

"I never again forgot the c in acquittal," the former English teacher said, "but my mother never did recover."

The spokesman for City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake said he, too, did the bee thing in second grade. Though he doesn't remember his winning word, Shaun Adamec thinks the experience helped point him in the direction of a language-oriented career.

Even the kids had nothing but respect for David's accomplishment. Douglass senior Michael Jordan, who plays trumpet, said of spelling, "I think that's important, straight up."

Fellow Friends sixth-grader Spencer Brock cheered his classmate with a sign he drew on cardboard: David Rox!

"It's kind of a joke," he said. "I'm not really that bad of a speller."

jill.rosen@baltsun.com

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