The 2011 Baltimore Bee drew 60 spellers to a contest that went a record 33 rounds Saturday at Towson University. By round seven, the field was down to three. Then, a misspelled "megalopolis" made it a two-way battle of words.
The last two stalwarts — the same students who sparred with each other verbally in the finals last year — spelled it out to a much-ballyhooed finale.
The hall turned quiet and tension built as Robbie Palmisano, 13, and Elizabeth Bernatowicz, 12, met challenges like "empanada," "neologism," "tsunami" and "mukhtar." The audience applauded each triumph.
"This is as good as TV," said Jonathan Bernatowicz, Elizabeth's 11-year-old brother — and one-time competitor until "schnauzer" ended his chances.
The judges could send only one winner to this summer's national bee in Washington. To break the tie, they went off the much-studied list of about 1,200 words. "Ballyhooed" stymied Elizabeth and gave Robbie the championship for the second consecutive year.
"I saw her searching her memory for that word," said Sandy Bernatowicz, who home-schools her children at the family residence in Freeland.
Robbie called Elizabeth his toughest competitor.
"She is a really good speller," said Robbie, a Hereford Middle School student. "I honestly dreaded spelling against her again."
Students from Baltimore city and county, many of them school champions, participated in the sixth annual bee.
"This expands their spelling ability, broadens vocabulary and develops word knowledge," said Erita Adams, principal of Northwood Elementary.
Northwood played "word of the day" over the intercom each morning, and Adams heard children fitting "somber," "console" and "threshold" into conversations. She did not include "morgue" on the daily vocabulary list, and the word ultimately defeated one of her students, who forgot the "u."
Each speller wore a navy blue T-shirt with the bee logo, a keepsake from the contest. The judges called the students by the numbers pinned to their shirts and gave them each a word. Wisdom Abdur-Rasheed Abdul-Aziz, 12, twirled the microphone, smiled and misspelled "hyphen." She was still smiling as she left the stage and took a seat in the audience to cheer on her schoolmates from the Islamic Community School in Baltimore.
"That 'y' tripped me up," she said. "But I'm glad for the experience. It is important to be a good speller."
As they pondered their answers, the children asked for word origins, definitions and alternate pronunciations. The bell for a mistake came immediately, but there seemed to be the briefest delay before "That's correct." The judge gave the correct spelling as the contestant walk off stage.
Emily Sann, 12, from Notre Dame Preparatory, made it through round four before tumbling over misanthropy. "The words are getting harder with each round," she said.
Some fingered the letters on the palm of the hand as they spelled. Some went too fast.
"You have to slow down," said Robbie. "It's easy to miss a letter you know is there."
In round three, Rose Alon, 13, tackled "benevolent" and erred on the second vowel.
"I knew it right away," said Rose, a Pikesville Middle student. "This was a good experience. I will try again."
Many parents in the audience admitted to as much "angst," which Ashon Carwell spelled correctly in round six, as their children.
"I am more nervous than he is," said his mother, Michonne McCoy. "We were both practicing during the breaks."
"Megalopolis" was Ashon's downfall, but he took home the third-place trophy.
"Every one of these kids is a winner, just by being here," said Angela Matthews, assistant principal at Mount Royal Elementary. "They will be back next year, even more prepared."