First it’s “indigoferous,” then “holishkes” and “balladmonger,” lilting through the air of the Thales Academy Junior High art room and into the automatic spellchecker of eighth-grader Michael Bono’s brain.
Michael slouches in a chair at the front of the room, spelling each word in seconds. His classmates hunch at their desks, waiting to cheer him on.
“Gynecomorphous,” humanities teacher Ashlie Canipe calls out.
Michael barely pauses. He spells it perfectly. The classroom erupts in hoots and applause. “Nice!” somebody calls from the back of the room. Michael smiles, but his eyes don’t leave Canipe. He’s waiting for his next challenge.
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It’s “Stump Michael Day,” a Wednesday tradition at the small Wake Forest school this month as Michael ramps up training for the Scripps National Spelling Bee May 30-31. All week, students collect the longest, most obscure vocabulary words they can find to toss in the bag on his homeroom door, helping train their champion to take on the nation.
“I hoped I would get this far, but I didn’t think it would happen,” Michael said.
National contest at stake
Last fall and winter, 278 students across the country spelled their way to the top of school and local bees to earn the chance to compete in the national contest near Washington, D.C., next week. Michael is one of 14 spellers from North Carolina, including Zachary Bryson Jacobs of Clayton and Ned Swansey of Durham. Students are younger than 16 and no higher than eighth grade.
Qualifying rounds are held that Tuesday and Wednesday. Thursday is the big leagues, with semifinals in the morning and championship finals from 8 to 10 p.m.
The stakes are high. The champion gets a $30,000 cash prize and a trophy from Scripps, plus a $2,500 savings bond and reference library from Merriam-Webster, a $5,000 scholarship from Sigma Phi Epsilon Educational Foundation, $2,600 of reference works from Encyclopaedia Britannica, an online language course and a Nook Color e-reader.
Other top spellers get cash prizes as well, from $12,500 for second place down to $2,000 for sixth.
Since it was first televised in 1946, Scripps’ spell-off has become the pinnacle of spelling fame. It’s broadcast live on ESPN. Winners go on to appearances on talk shows and late-night TV. Multiple documentaries have been made about the rigors of preparation.
A ‘cool customer’
Michael, otherwise known as speller #177, has been studying for six months. His bedroom in Rolesville is plastered with notecards of vocabulary words: “affenpinscher” taped to his desk, “zwieschenspiel” on his dresser, “macaque” staring down from his wall. He stays after school twice a week for quizzing with Canipe, his spelling coach, fitting in their sessions between soccer, tae kwon do and clarinet practice.
Eighth-grader Evan Gales managed to stump Michael two Wednesdays ago, with the word “novelettist.” Still, he says he’s confident his friend will go far.
“I don’t think anyone is surprised he’s done this well,” Evan said. “We all are proud of him and hope he does his best.”
Teachers describe Michael, 13, as a quiet leader in the school, voted student body president though he’s younger than his classmates by a year after skipping a grade in kindergarten. Canipe expects that calm confidence to serve him well at the bee.
“He’s a pretty cool customer most of the time,” she said. “He doesn’t get easily rattled.”
So far, the months of practice have paid off. Michael nails the majority of spelling curveballs thrown at him on “Stump Michael Day.” He says he’ll keep studying until the second before he goes on stage at the national contest.
In the meantime, he’s not above a little local competition. Thales administrator Melissa Edwards tried a spell-off against Michael once, to help him prepare.
“He slaughtered me,” Edwards said.