It’s hour six.
Jack Cicin, No. 47, stands up and approaches the microphone for the 21st time.
The word is called. He looks up, then pauses. Then lists all the letters he thinks are there.
He walks back to his chair.
Michael Bono, No. 28, stands up and approaches the microphone to spell his word. Then back to his chair.
The dueling spellers move through this routine as 81 other students did before them.
After 22 elimination rounds, theirs are the only chairs on stage. And the chair matters, because sitting over and over means you can still get up to spell.
Students from elementary and middle schools throughout Wake County competed in the second annual Wake County Spelling Bee on Saturday, attempting to spell out loud in front of three judges, a pronouncer and hundreds of onlookers at the McKimmon Center at N.C. State University.
The bee is a part of the Scripps National Spelling Bee program and was hosted by the Partners for the Advancement of Gifted Education of Wake County, a nonprofit parent group that offers programming and support for gifted students.
Saturday’s participants already had won the bees at each of their schools, and the winner gets an all-expenses paid trip for two to the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., in May.
“There aren’t very many opportunities for students to get recognized for their academic prowess,” said Lily Phillips, an organizer of the event and a PAGE volunteer. “I think it does more than showcase speaking. It develops poise, the ability to speak in public, and the ability to handle anxiety with that sort of thing.”
The number of spelling bees in North Carolina jumped more than any other state last year, Phillips said.
“It kind of caught fire,” she said. “I think bees are just getting a lot more popular. It could be there’s more emphasis on back-to-basic educational programs. It’s a competition, people actually see it now that it’s on ESPN.”
Extemporaneous spelling success is a combination of memorization, study and some luck, said Kenneth Brinson Jr., the pronouncer for the bee and an assistant professor of educational leadership and research at N.C. State.
Brinson has been pronouncing words at spelling bees for a decade. He’s done about 30 bees this year at schools in Wake and Johnston counties, and rehearses and studies the words he gives students during the competition. He was given a 1,000-word list from the national Scripps organization and prepared for 10 hours in advance of Saturday’s bee, he said.
“I’m passionate about it,” he said. “It’s fun for the kids; it makes learning fun. This is competition; these kids work hard to do this.”
Not all random word assignments are equal. Some students can get harder words than others; words dolled up with extra vowels, phonetically unnecessary endings and sneaky, unheard consonants stuck between others, like “diphthong,” or in front, like “knavery.”
They’ll figure out its letters by asking a language of origin, definition, and its use in a sentence. Some students trace the word on the palm of their hand with their finger.
Then they spell, and hope they’re right.
Before going into the final rounds, Nathan Bowyer, 10, sat with his dad, Steve, studying his word list. The fifth-grader at Leesville Road Elementary wasn’t nervous.
“I’m feeling pretty good,” he said. Bowyer went on to spell through at least a dozen more rounds, coming in third.
Eight-year-old Anish Toomu was the youngest speller at the competition.
The second-grader at A.B. Combs Elementary in Raleigh made it through all the preliminary rounds, competing with students as much as six years older than him.
He studied at home with his mom for weeks, “pretending that it’s like a real bee.”
“We just came here just for the fun of it,” said Anish’s dad, Vinay Toomu of Cary. “It’s been a great ride; we’ve enjoyed it. It’s quite amazing to see how he’s stepped up.”
Words become more difficult as spellers are eliminated.
The first round saw words like “luau” and “nightingale.” Later, students were asked to spell words like “langosta,” a spiny lobster of Spanish origin.
Then it came down to two.
“Toreador”: a bullfighter, of Spanish origin. Jack, who attends Lufkin Road Middle School in Apex, begins to spell.
That clear ping from the silver bell punctuates the air. His spelling is wrong.
Michael, 12, who is in eighth grade at Thales Academy in Wake Forest, moves to the microphone to spell “Ichabod.”
There’s silence, then applause.