Wake County spelling bee winner spells it like it sounds

dranii@newsobserver.comFebruary 23, 2013 

— One of Rohan Sachdev’s favorite words is pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis.

Another favorite: bouleversement.

“It has so many silent letters,” marveled Rohan, a home-schooled fourth-grader who lives in Cary. (In case you didn’t know, bouleversement is pronounced booluh-vers-mahn.)

Rohan was in his element Saturday – one of 91 champion spellers who competed in the third annual spelling bee, organized by the Partners for the Advancement of Gifted Education, or PAGE, of Wake County, a nonprofit group that supports the development of gifted students.

This spell-a-thon, held at the McKimmon Center at N.C. State University, was a marathon, not a sprint. The contest of elementary and middle school students from across Wake County who already had won spelling bees at their respective schools – the youngest were three third-graders – began at 8:30 a.m. and lasted until about 4:50 p.m., minus a lunch break of nearly 90 minutes. It went much longer than the organizers anticipated, a testament to the collective spelling abilities of contestants who remained in the competition as long as they kept spelling their words correctly.

The last speller standing was Ethan Wagner, an eighth-grader at St. Michael School in Cary, who triumphed by successfully navigating his way through w-a-f-f-l-e-s-t-o-m-p-e-r. (It’s a type of hiking boot.)

Wagner said afterward that the word was unknown to him.

“It sounded like waffle and stomper put together,” he said matter-of-factly. “It sounded like that, so I guessed it was spelled like that.”

Wagner said he loves the way that the competitive nature of a spelling bee gets his adrenaline jumping.

“It’s sort of like sports except for academics,” he said.

Wagner, who advances to the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., also was upholding a family tradition. His sister, Catherine, now a sophomore at Cardinal Gibbons High School in Raleigh, won the local spelling bee in 2011.

So what’s the value of a spelling bee in an era where computer spell-checkers can save the world’s worst spellers from embarrassment?

Spelling bee organizers say such contests foster pride in academic success, help students gain appreciation for the richness of language, give them confidence in public speaking – try spelling nubuck or obedientiary in front of an auditorium of people – and promote the old-fashioned notion of working diligently toward a goal.

“The ones who do well are the ones who study,” said Lily Phillips, president of PAGE and co-coordinator of the spelling bee.

And, in some cases, study and study and study. Some students reported studying up to five hours daily in the days leading up to Saturday’s contest.

Caroline Gall, a fourth-grader at Leesville Road Elementary School, acknowledged being “really nervous” Saturday morning.

“There is like ton of people here,” she said. “And I’m competing against eighth-graders, and this is my first time here.”

But one thing she wasn’t worried about was spelling hors d’oeuvre.

That particular word so bedeviled her while she was studying for the bee that she took to writing it 10 times a day until she got it down pat.

Her mom, Connie Keen, noted that spelling bees are as much “a test of nerves” as they are a test of spelling skills. That’s especially so because once contestants utter a letter they can’t take it back.

And, as with any other type of competition, parents of the contestants can get hotheaded at times.

Ken Brinson Jr., an N.C. State University professor, served as the “pronouncer” who gave contestants the words they must spell – and, upon their request, provided definitions, what language the word came from, alternate pronunciations and other pertinent information – at Saturday’s contest. He volunteers his time for 30 to 40 spelling bees in the region each year.

“I have been walked to my car (by security guards) three times already this year,” he said. “I wouldn’t want it to sound as if all parents are bad – they certainly aren’t. But a couple of occasions were awkward.”

Ranii: 919-829-4877

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