• U.S.

Education: Spellbound

3 minute read

For four feminist years, sharp-tongued girls have speared the prize at the Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee. It looked that way again last week at the 32nd annual spellbinder in the ballroom of Washington’s Mayflower Hotel. The girls marched past progressively tougher words, from heroine, blossom and dentifrice to operose, miscible and quadrumanous. By the end of the first day, there were six girl contestants to five boys.

Ratiocination. On the second day, the tide turned. As newsmen sneakily cribbed from one another at tables covered with green (baze? baize? beise?) cloth, the girls were toppled by persiflage, ephelis, additament, cacolet. In the 22nd round, 13-year-old Elaine Hassell of Dallas, the last girl survivor, fluffed on porphyry (she guessed porfiree). Three boys remained: Allan L. Kramer, 13, of Lake Worth, Fla.; Robert Crossley, 13, of Norristown, Pa.; Joel Montgomery, 12, of Denver. And down went Kramer in Round 24; after negotiating quidnunc, eclectic, and sarcophagus, he missed ratiocination. The mellifluous pronouncer (“I give full value to each of the diacritical markings in Webster”) was so overcome that he nearly left the stage himself.

For five more rounds the tension made an ordinary TV isolation booth seem like a rest cure. Closing his eyes and mopping his face, Bobby Crossley delivered terricolous amid wild applause. Seventh Grader Joel Montgomery coolly rapped out pastiche, prolegomenous, successfully spelled susurrus when Bobby shakily tiubbed it. Then Joel missed vinaigrous, and so did Bobby, leaving the game at deuce. In Round 30, Joel gracefully pronounced gracilescent and spelled it correctly; it was Bobby’s chance to hold the tie. As he stood under the tall microphone, pondering fanfaronade, Bobby’s long trousers seemed to sag. Out came fanferanade. All Joel had to do to win was spell catamaran, the 594th word. He did it without batting an eye.

Tenebrous. A calm champion—the first boy to win since 1954—pudgy, pink-cheeked Joel slung an arm around tearful Bobby and quietly allowed that his only real puzzler had been intitule in an early round. Joel came equipped to win. The son of a lumber salesman, he reads four or five books a week, is starting Darwin’s Origin of Species. And his spelling coach at Denver’s Byers Junior High School is Teacher Ted Glim, producer of a co-champion two years ago, who shuns rote memorization. Glim starts with accurate pronunciation. “Then we go thoroughly into roots, prefixes and suffixes. We learn the story behind words, their meaning and use today.” Run-of-the-mull samples: tenebrous, cachinnatory, sorbefacient. Says Glim-trained Joel, whose $1,000 prize would go toward his college education as a forestry scientist: “I’m interested in words. They’re fun.”

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