by Anthony Harrison
When I was in sixth grade, I ascended to the Guilford County spelling bee, only to muff the word “possessed.” I dropped the first S. I wrote it over and over again both ways, and I just couldn’t get it right. I could spell any other word the remaining students faced, but I missed mine.
My mistake haunts me to this day.
Still, when my friend Rachel invited me to Sip ‘n Spell, an adult spelling bee held at the Daily Planet Café in Raleigh, I jumped at the chance.
Despite my pre-pubescent failure, I remained confident in my abilities, even when I was told the contest was a science-related bee. Thankfully, we had some ringers on our team: Etsy forum moderator Rob, personal trainer Sean and naturopathic physician Dee. We were clearly unstoppable.
The Daily Planet Café sits in the corner of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in downtown. It’s a cleanly modern spot: Glass front, blonde wood panels offsetting the gray walls, sleek lines elsewhere. The kitchen staff seemed to be closing shop, but a member of the competition chowed on a tantalizing burger. And it wouldn’t be an adult trivia contest without beer.
Team names are important in bouts like this. We were tasked with defeating Dirty Spellions, Alcoholics Unanimous, Spells Like Teen Spirit, ExSpelliarmus, Spellicans, Chicks with Baculums and local Scrabble team Tetrasporic Triceratops.
We had a rockin’ name backing our talent, the product of me and Rachel brainstorming the week prior: N*SYZYGY, a mashup of allusions to the boy band and the Broadway show, 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee — “syzygy” was the fictional moderator’s winning word in her bee.
A little after 7 p.m., emcee Brian Malow explained the rules: The words would increase in difficulty. Spelling, delivered onstage via microphone, could be delivered solo or split between two team members, with duos alternating letters in the word. Spellers could request the definition and for the word to be used in a sentence. Once the word was given, the speller had 30 seconds to begin spelling. Teams could misspell one word without fear of elimination.
Then Malow began the bee.
The first round proceeded smoothly enough. Mineral. Median. Jargon. Bivalve.
On our turn, Sean stepped up to the microphone, nailing “benthic.”
But the first strike went against ExSpelliarmus: “Mathematics.” Their representative missed the i.
On long words, it’s easy to lose track, even if the word in question seems pedestrian.
Spellicans missed their first word, as well: “Porosity.”
I must admit, I would’ve replaced the s with a c in my guess, too.
Chicks with Baculums confidently ran out of the gate with two members and received “penumbra.”
“Can you say it slower?” one speller asked.
“I don’t know if I can say it any slower,” Malow quipped.
Regardless, they spelled it perfectly.
The next words seemed to fall largely in the category of common misspellings.
Rachel stepped up to “Celsius.”
“I wish I’d paid attention in science,” she laughed.
After a beat, Rachel collected herself and rattled it out without fail.
Spellicans weren’t so lucky with “anemone.” A-N-E-M-E-N-Y. Thus, they were knocked out, but received bear-shaped bottles of honey as a consolation prize.
I was up third for our team, and the words did get harder: Gibbous. Larynx. Atavism. Barophilic. Blastogenesis.
I strolled up, shaking out my nerves, and Malow read out my word: “Capybara.”
A sigh of relief and a quick flurry of letters, and I skipped offstage victorious.
Cetology. Peccary. Poliomyelitis. Cytogeny.
Dee was up next.
“Pachyderm,” Brian said.
“Pachyderm,” Dee replied. “P-A-C-I-D-E-R-M. Pachyderm.”
One strike against us. Dee asked the arbiter, museum historian Paul Brinkman, for the correct spelling.
“I was really, really not right,” Dee said, discouraged.
But by that point, we were one of only three teams remaining.
Rob took the stage.
“Bioluminescence,” Malow read.
“Aww, that’s easy,” someone complained from the peanut gallery.
Rob took his time.
“Bioluminescence,” he repeated. “B-I-O-L-U-M-I-N-E-S…”
Those long words will get you.
“… C-E-N-C-E,” Rob continued.
He’d come through in the clutch.
“It’s not a hard word,” he said as he sat down, “but there’s so many bits to it. You have to go bit by bit.”
Having gone through each team member, I volunteered to go again.
“Isoseismal,” Malow read.
A twinge of panic. I isolated the bits. I figured the word was of Greek origin, like me.
“Isoseismal,” I said. “I-S-O-S-E-I-S-M-A-L. Isoseismal.”
“Correct,” Malow said.
Another huge sigh of relief. I’d let no one down tonight.
Tetrasporic Triceratops fell next on “Escherichia.”
“I almost looked that up beforehand,” their representative stated, “but I never thought you’d ask it.”
If we spelled the next word correctly, we were the winners. Rob and I shortly deliberated between who would approach the stage. Rob went ahead.
“Anencephaly,” Malow said.
Rob laughed and asked for the definition.
“Anencephaly,” Wendy Lovelady, the pronouncer and museum exhibit and media developer, said. “Congenital absence of all or part of the brain.”
N*SYZYGY held its breath.
“Anencephaly,” Rob said. “A-N-E-N-C-E-P-H-A-L-Y. Anencephaly.”
“Your winners tonight: N*SYZYGY,” Malow said.
We all exploded with enthusiasm.
“Rock and roll, Rob!” Sean said.
Dee remained down on herself.
“If I hadn’t been here, we would’ve done better,” she mused.
“Don’t worry about it,” I said, knowingly. “You always dwell on the one you f*** up.”