The first word is…,” Rachel Scott announces to a crowd, “haughty.”
Across from her, the first of almost 40 contestants takes the mic, unsure. Even though there is not an empty chair in the building, a hush falls over the crowd.
“H-O-T-T-I-E?” the contestant spells out.
“I’m sorry, that is incorrect,” Scott declares.
The night begins and continues in traditional spelling-bee fashion. Scott presents, defines and gives the origins of dozens of words during a crowded Saturday night at Gibb’s Hundred Brewing Company in Greensboro. Their Inebriated Spelling Bee sees guests flocking to the corner of the bar that, tonight, acts as a makeshift stage, where contestants make lucky guesses and unfortunate mistakes.
Scott keeps up with the official rules of the competition, bringing up 10 people at a time. All must repeat their given words, spell them correctly and repeat them again to move on to the next round. If they mess up, Scott eliminates them from the running; their word becomes the next contestant’s challenge.
And, of course, they’re encouraged to drink as much as they wish, if they want.
Reliving grade-school glory draws many people out. Scott has a spelling bee memory of her own, from the fifth grade.
“I was the winner for my school in 1995,” she recalls.
She laughs, remembering the thick Southern accent from the judge making her not recognize the word “squirrel.” She even remembers exactly how she misspelled it.
“S-Q-U-A-R-R-L,” she says.
After her first word takes her down, Chanell Bryant grabs a brew from the bar. She commiserates with other eliminated contestants because of a tricky word: trichinosis. Bryant finds the loss ironic.
“I’m a legitimate childhood spelling-bee winner,” Bryant says. “My mom still has all my trophies.”
Even as the night winds on, and the stakes get higher, a few players persevere. Toting wine glasses and beer mugs, the contestants line up to attempt to spell words like “absorptive,” and “misdemeanor.” Scott grins as she finds the next person’s linguistic trial.
“The word is,” she pauses, “thermohaline.”
Shouts of “What?” and “Huh?” burst from the crowd, which quickly falls eerily silent as the first person tries, and fails to spell the word. The same hush continues as the second person steps up. When the third person makes a misstep, the round finishes and Scott reveals the actual spelling, earning even more confusion.
No pause from difficult words is given, as “triptych” strikes two more contestants. As the third person cautiously restarts, and orders the vowels correctly, actual applause breaks out. Stomping, clapping and hollering echoes in the cozy space of the bar.
The round leaves only three standing: Jeff Sovich, Amanda Turner and Tazmen Hansen. The rules now shift. If one of the finalists misspell a word, they may remain should the other two contestants not know the answer.
The trio pass through 17 different rounds, as words like “abecedarian” and “sinistrocular” keep them at a standstill. Turner second-guesses her spelling of “promiscuous,” and then it becomes only two.
Sovich and Hansen answer purposefully, cycling through what seems like an endless length of letters as they go head-to-head.
It all comes down to a vowel. The word? “Lycium.”
The word ruins Sovich’s near-perfect record, and it hinges on whether or not Hansen can get it right. The room goes still, only the sound of cups being placed down breaking the silence, half the crowd shifting to one side of the room to watch.
The moment Hansen reaches “M”, the room yells and claps for her victory. Not a person stays quiet, and even Sovich applauds her win.
“I wanted to try a spelling bee,” he says, “because I’ve never done one before.”
Hansen laughs as Scott hands her a small trophy and crowns her the winner. She holds it in both hands, feeling more nostalgic than Sovich, and remembering elementary school victories.
“It’s third grade all over again,” she grins.
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