For most people, standing on stage in front of strangers and spelling, or attempting to spell, the most obscure of words would be a nightmare reminiscent of painful elementary school experiences. But for Jason and Hannah, two 14-year old King County residents, it is both good fun and an opportunity to showcase their fabulous talents.
This March, Jason and Hannah navigated their way, one carefully pronounced letter at a time, to the top of the King and Snohomish County Regional Spelling Bee. Hannah's run ended in second place when she misspoke while spelling "ignominious", but Jason's proper spelling of "filiality" gave him the top spot and took him cross-country to compete in the Scripps National Bee in Washington D.C., where he took his place as one of the top 100 youth spellers in the country.
But now that Jason and Hannah have finished 8th grade, their window of eligibility has closed. So where will they take their spelling talents now? "I don't know where I'll spell next," Jason says. "I've been looking around for minor bees. Maybe I'll find something by contacting schools."
This past Sunday at Bumbershoot, Jason and Hannah got their first taste of adult spelling competition, where they served as "word experts" at the Re-bar's spelling exhibition.
Since July of 2006, the Re-bar has hosted a Spelling Bee strictly for adults. The bee was started by Josh Malamy and Benjamin Williams, 25-year-old flight attendants turned UW Dean's Office Assistants, who got the idea from a successful bee at a bar they patronized in Brooklyn. "Given that Seattle is the most literate city in the country," Williams says, "we thought it would be pretty popular."
Malamy and Williams were right. They estimate that 125 people showed up to the first bee, and the final round of season one saw the Re-bar filled to capacity.
"People come for a lot of reasons," Williams says. "A lot of them remember bombing out early in elementary school bees, and now that they are older and wiser, they want to come back and vindicate themselves."
Malamy, himself a champion at the Brooklyn bee, added that a lot of people come simply for the love of language. "The esoteric words give you a different kind of creative juice," he says. "It's fun to hear them again."
At Bumbershoot, five former Re-bar spelling champions competed in a mini-bee in front of an audience at the Literary Arts Stage in the Leo K. theatre. The contestants had five words to spell from categories such as "Umbrella Words," "Northwest Words," and "Welsh Words adopted into English."
Among the contestants was Chloe, a 28-year-old technical writer from Seattle.Having competed in bees since elementary school, Chloe calls them a "life-long obsession." After she attended her first Re-bar Bee this Spring, she was hooked. "I didn't win my first time, but I was determined to come back until I did," she says. "When I finally did win, I was way more excited than I thought I would be. I jumped up on stage and hugged Ben and Josh."
That victory won Chloe a spot in Sunday's exhibition at Bumbershoot, were Jason and Hannah were on hand to offer spelling advice to the contestants. The contestants took them up on the offer. John H. (as per Re-bar tradition, contestants go by their first names and second initial) was very impressed by the youngsters. "I was blown away by how logically they approached the words," H. says. "They knew their linguistics, and when you know the systems of languages, it is a big help."
When asked how she would have done against the adult contestants, Hannah was modest. "I think I would have done okay," she says.
John H. was less ambiguous. "They would have creamed us."
The word expert's skills were on full display when Gretta C., an adult contestant and another former Re-bar champion, was given a particularly difficult word to spell. After mulling it over, she conferred with Jason, and after a few seconds of whispering, she addressed the audience. "We have a disagreement," she said. "I could spell it his way, and blame it on him if I'm wrong, or I could spell it my way, and just be wrong. So, his way it is, of course."
Jason was right, and Gretta correctly spelled "Hsin,", the name of a shortlived first-century Chinese dynasty. The audience applauded, but Gretta redirected their admiration to Jason.
Malamy asked Jason how he conjured up the correct spelling. Jason responded casually, saying, "I knew it was was Romanized from Pekingese."
Jason and Hannah's careers as youth spellers may be over, but when they turn 21, glory at the Re-bar awaits them.