TRAVERSE CITY — When your sport is words and your opponent is Webster’s 2,816-page “Third New International Dictionary,” you’d best come “praeparare.” And ready to use esoteric words like that one, Latin for “prepared,” in a sentence.
It isn’t the Latin words or even the French ones that have fifth-grader Matthew Cox, of Kalkaska, cogitating. Which is a fancy way of saying he’s been studying his brains out. Cox, 10, said he thinks he has those words down pat.
“It’s probably the Russian ones,” he said, when asked which of the 450 words on the Scripps’ 2019 School Spelling Bee Study List might give him trouble. “To me, those look like someone just started typing letters and came up with a word.”
Cox, Kalkaska’s spelling champion, is one of 30 fifth- through eighth-graders from Antrim, Charlevoix-Emmet, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska and Leelanau counties who will assemble inside the State Theatre in Traverse City on March 17 to compete in the 91st annual Grand Traverse Regional Spelling Bee. The winner will receive a trip to Washington D.C. to attend “Bee Week” May 26-31, and compete in the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
But first they’ll take the stage, stand in front of a microphone, and accept interrogatories (questions) from an erudite enunciator (pronouncer Kate Botello of Interlochen Public Radio) most likely in front of the largest audience of family, friends and fans they’ve ever faced.
Palms will sweat, voices will crack, and for those who make a mistake, a bell will ding signaling the word has been misspelled.
“No one wants to hear that sound, but it’s the luck of the draw,” said Patty Cox, retired middle school teacher, county commissioner, spelling bee coordinator for Kalkaska county since 1988 and, perhaps most importantly, Matthew Cox’s grandmother. “A lot depends on the word you get. That and being careful. Being patient and taking your time.”
Patty Cox, 73, knows of what she speaks. In 1960 she was Kalkaska’s spelling champion, and two decades later her son and Matthew Cox’s father, Zack Cox, followed in his mother’s footsteps and won, too. Meaning, this year, Matthew has the first of four chances to be a legacy.
How does he handle the extra pressure?
“I just breathe deep, and tell myself I can do it,” he said.
Plus if he misspells a word, there’s comfort in knowing he can compete every year through 8th grade, and he has five younger brothers and sisters who can compete when they reach fifth grade.
Student competitors representing other schools say they have their own ways of coping with the excitement and the pressure.
“I read a ton, I do the online course, and I put it in God’s hands,” said Kingsley Middle School eighth-grader ChristiAnn Whims, 13, Grand Traverse County’s champion.
Cecilia Balog and Robby Myler, both 12, of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Middle School in Traverse City, said they are members of Word Club, an online subscription service of Scripps that lets competitors test themselves.
“And I have a lucky watch,” said Balog, “with a bee on it.”
Leslie Summers, language arts teacher at the school, said that reading is key. And working Greek and Latin words into the curriculum so they don’t look strange and students become familiar with them.
“That ties right into being a good speller,” she said. “When you’re exposed to unfamiliar words, you learn how to beak them down into recognizable syllables.”
Northern Michigan has never had a national champion, and Michigan has only had one. In 1941, 13-year-old Louis Edward Sissman of Detroit won with the word “initials.” Sissman went on to graduate Harvard, win a Guggenheim Fellowship and publish a collection of poems, “Hello Darkness,” which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1978.
For a contest wholly focused on the proper spelling, pronunciation, and usage of words, curiously little is known about the word “bee,” when used other than to describe a pollinator.
Since the 1700s, “bee” has been used to refer to various community activities, such as corn husking, apple picking, and quilting, according to the Dictionary of Americanisms.
Sunday at the State Theatre beginning at 11 a.m. certainly promises to be a protectorate of activity. Otherwise known as a “hive.”