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Young competitors deserve big hand for learning to spell success

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Posted: Sunday, March 4, 2012 12:06 am | Updated: 1:42 pm, Wed Jan 16, 2013.

FAIRBANKS — The Interior Alaska Spelling Bee, featuring dozens of young scholars, is about the English language, but it’s also about body language.

The young people from across central Alaska gathered at Hering Auditorium to take turns spelling words on the stage, where judges Kristina Brophy, Kathryn Dodge and yours truly listened and watched.

As a group, the boys seemed more nervous than the girls as they inched close to the microphone, which had to be raised or lowered by up to three feet, given the vertical variety of the speakers.

Some appeared to have their hands glued to the bottom of their pockets, while others kept just their thumbs in their pockets and shifted from foot to foot as they concentrated.

A few clasped their hands in front of themselves, getting a solid enough grip on one to prevent the other from escaping. Not many students stood with their hands at their sides. Tim Helmer, a seventh-grader from Tok, clasped his hands behind his back.

Mei Flory, a fifth-grader at the Northern Lights Academy, was probably the best hand-to-hand speller.

When she was ready to spell, she held her left hand close to her side and used her right index finger to draw out the letters on her left palm, saying the letters out loud. As the poet said, “The moving finger writes; and having writ, moves on.”

On his first trip to the stage, Michael Odom looked as if he had just lost his best friend. I’ve never seen anyone stop breathing for that long.

But after the University Park fourth-grader spelled a few words correctly, he loosened up and even pumped his fist after spelling “exuberant” correctly in a later round. He had reason to be exuberant.

I enjoy judging this contest every March and I am struck by how expressive the students are. Their facial expressions reflect exactly what they are feeling at the moment, which is a quality that most of us lose as the years pass.

Jake Stone, a sixth-grader at Woodriver, was asked to spell “malaria.” I don’t know that anyone has ever been happier about malaria.

“I actually know that one,” he beamed, before delivering a letter-perfect performance.

I think that Jesse Ackerman, a fifth-grader at Hunter, will be a philosopher one day. “I wonder how long I’m going to be up here,” he said after a couple of rounds, pondering what might await him.

“It depends upon how much you prepared,” responded teacher Cynthia Sibitzky. She asked him to spell “vigilante” and he did justice to the word.

Sibitzky, a music teacher at Crawford Elementary on Eielson, has one of the harder tasks — other than spelling. Year after year, she does a fantastic job of pronouncing the words.

Kaleb Johnson, a third-grader at Ticasuk Brown, had no trouble understanding what he was asked to spell. He wore a long-sleeve gray T-shirt under a blue short-sleeve school T-shirt.

As he chose his letters, Kaleb clenched and unclenched his fists on the extra fabric inside the sleeves of his gray shirt, which will probably fit him when he gets to middle school.

He was one of the top younger contestants in an event that is open to students up to the eighth grade.

The only second-grader on the stage was William Guevara-Mendoza of Anne Wien, who has a career ahead of him in the spelling game.

Hearing William spell “clementine” with numerous pauses was a dramatic triumph rivaling any of the great performances of the past on the Hering stage.

The top three finishers were: Brian Ely, a sixth-grader at Barnette, third place; Tyler Kline, a sixth-grader at Crawford; and David Jones, an eighth-grader in the FOCUS Home School program.

Jones is the defending champion and he will be on his way to Washington, D.C., as one of two representatives from Alaska in the national competition.

He told me he was nervous during the competition, but he didn’t look it. He did a good job last year in the national spelling bee, getting through the first three rounds. He plans to study hard before the 2012 competition in the spring.

Dermot Cole can be reached at or 459-7530.

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