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Spelling bee opens new avenues of knowledge

Spelling bee opens new avenues of knowledge

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The winning word was mancala.

It’s an Arabic noun that describes any of various games from Africa and southern Asia that involve competition between two players in the distribution of pieces into rows of holes or pockets in a board.

It feels kind of weird feeling proud that you know how to spell a word in a children’s spelling bee, but, for anyone who has ever known the answer to Final Jeopardy or screamed the answer to the puzzle at the TV while watching Wheel of Fortune, you know the feeling.

On March 23, I once again had the opportunity to help as a judge with the Richmond Times-Dispatch 2021 Regional Spelling Bee. The bee looked extremely different this year because of ongoing COVID-19 precautions, but it was still a fascinating process to watch these kids compete.

In a normal year, the spelling bee is held on a Saturday in the auditorium at the Library of Virginia, which is a great setting for a spelling bee. Depending on the year, we might have 29 to 36 districts in the regional spelling bee, representing not only public schools but private, Catholic, and homeschool divisions.

Of course, this year had to be different. After winning their local bees, students had the opportunity to take a written spelling test, and the top five spellers were chosen to compete in last week’s regional bee.

It was disappointing that I didn’t get to watch and cheer for a Powhatan County student competing this year as the division was one of many that opted not to hold a spelling bee. I am hoping we come back strong next year with a great regional competition.

The final five in the regional bee were invited to participate in the event from rooms in their respective schools via Zoom. There were a few hiccups along the way, but it went surprisingly well.

The winner, Ananya Nanduru, is from Henrico County, and she will represent the region at the Scripps National Spelling Bee this year. She beat Reese Wu of Chesterfield on the 25th round – 23 of those rounds saw only the pair of them competing.

The regional spelling bee has been a fascinating process to watch since I got involved with it a few years ago. These children have incredible memories, which they demonstrate by spelling words I have never even heard or seen written before.

Because of my love of Renaissance fairs, I was familiar with flagon, which is a large usually metal or pottery vessel with a handle and spout and often a lid, but I did not know that a sackbut is a medieval trombone.

Nor did I know that a noctambulist was one who walks at night, especially while sleeping.

I knew that a horologist is a maker of clocks or watches and that vapidity is the quality or state of lacking flavor, zest, animation, or spirit. But I did not know that a tonometer is an instrument for measuring the exact pitch or vibration rate of tones, nor that mensuration is the act, process, art, or an instance of measuring.

And all of those are just in the regular round words. The championship word section, which was drawn on several times as one girl misspelled a word and they attempted to name a winner, is downright scary.

Did you know that a zarzuela is a Spanish opera having spoken dialogue and usually a comic subject? How about the Tagalog word apitong, which is an important Philippine timber tree yielding a resin used as an illuminant or varnish or for caulking boats.

It has been many years since my last science class, so I couldn’t have told you that a zygoneure was a connecting neuron, much less known how to spell the word. Maybe some art lovers would have known how to spell esquisse, which is a first usually rough sketch, as of a picture or model of a statue.

These are just some of the words these students were asked to spell, but I saw many more that blew my mind while flipping through the larger word list. For instance, Kjeldahl is a Danish name of, relating to, or being a method for determining the amount of nitrogen in a substance. You may know that a brouhaha is publicity, attention, or excitement far beyond the merits or importance of its cause, but did you know that a bruja (pronounced liked the first without the extra “ha”) is a Spanish word for a witch or sorceress?

If your head is spinning from these few words, imagine what it is like for the students who try to memorize thousands of them in hopes that they will retain the right ones at the right moment. These kids are amazing.

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