The run ends for city speller

Written test takes Friends School boy out of Bee

May 31, 2007|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,Sun reporter

WASHINGTON -- It's barely 9 a.m. and already a little girl in pigtails is crying in the lobby. She's wiping tears off her face with the tail of her official Bee jersey.

Dads - more than one of them - cradle hardback, unabridged dictionaries. Mothers scope out the competition.

The National Spelling Bee opened yesterday with that kind of uneasy current - wild hope tempered by nerves and spiked with pride. For the first time in more than a generation, Baltimore had a stake in the esteemed academic contest - David Brokaw, a sixth-grader from the Friends School.

David, who at 11 is younger than almost everyone in the Bee, couldn't make it past the preliminaries. But today in the increasingly intense final rounds, Maryland will be represented by students from Annapolis and Prince Frederick in Calvert County.

Yesterday, contestants and their families swarmed the Grand Hyatt Hotel, posing for pictures near the fountain, fixing their ponytails in front of the huge restroom mirrors.

The preliminary round began at 8 a.m. - but by then, the fretting was well under way.

David's parents sipped coffee in the lobby while their son struggled with the Bee's written test - 25 multiple-choice questions that typically weed out about two-thirds of the field.

Despite the rousing sendoff rally Baltimore gave him Tuesday, and despite slipping on his lucky socks (the striped ones he wore when he won the citywide bee), David spent the morning pacing the hotel room, said parents Peter and Laura Brokaw.

"Like a caged animal," his mom said.

David was anything but certain about the multiple-choice questions.

"I'm not sure," he said. "I don't think I did very good. But whatever happens, happens."

He had higher hopes for the part that happens on stage, where contestants spell in front of everyone - the judges, television cameras, their barely breathing parents.

When the first live speller in David's round finally arrived at center stage, she got the word rigorous. As if competing in the nation's Olympics of spelling didn't leave her neck-deep in rigor, the girl from Indiana asked for a definition.

Another boy needed to have optimist defined. With 286 spellers battling for the title, his haziness on that concept was somewhat more understandable.

Imaginary. Flammable. Grotesque. Kilowatt. Villain. Primitive.

To say David fidgeted in his seat during all of this would be understating the situation. He twirled his contestant identification placard, he nibbled at it, he rested it on his head like a flat little hat. He sat on his hands, he swiveled in his seat, he wedged his lucky-socked feet in and out of his slip-on shoes.

When David's turn approached and he got up to wait his turn at the microphone, his nervous wiggling disappeared. He was more than all business. While other kids in the on-deck slot shook or looked queasy - or both - David was stoicism personified, hands in the pockets of his baggy khakis, yawning showily.

When he was up, he strode forward, adjusted the mike down and stared unblinkingly. When the judge asked him to take a stab at marathon, he blurted the letters right out.

His mother beamed.

The preliminaries wound down with more of the same. Habitat. Fulcrum. Equivalent. A boy misspelled debtor (d-e-t-e-r). A girl asked for the definition of ninety. ("Being one more than 89 in number," offered a judge.)

There was a short break for lunch before Bee officials summoned everyone back to the ballroom to reveal who made it to the next round. They read the numbers one by one, in no particular order.

The announcer asked everyone to "temper their reactions in the name of good sportsmanship." She hardly needed to add, "I sense the tension and anticipation."

As the numbers of the successful entrants began echoing through the auditorium, David's mom sat with pursed-lips, his dad with his arms folded across his chest. They weren't hearing No. 113.

Nestled between them, David clenched one hand into a small fist and closed his eyes.

Finally the number-calling stopped. One hundred and seven kids had made it to the next round. David wasn't one of them.

Showing only the slightest flicker of disappointment, he clapped hard for others. His mom leaned down to kiss him on the head.

Someone dialed the principal at Friends School and handed David the phone. "I didn't pass," he told him, then turned back to his family. "Let's go, OK?"

Although they were rooting for David to go all the way, representatives of Catapult, the online tutoring company that resurrected Baltimore's spelling contest, said they were mainly glad to see the city back in the game.

"We're so well known for the crime and the drugs," said Raquel Whiting, Catapult's national director for community and business development, "I really want people to think about the awesome students here. This isn't just about David, this is about a city aspiring."

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