Spelling bees, long a domain of kids, now attract seniors
The AARP national championship this weekend will feature dozens of contestants who have spent the past year studying words in the car, on the treadmill, and in the dentist's chair.
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In these final days before the bee, many of the spellers' conversations are sprinkled with words just beyond typical daily parlance – innumerable, erudite, transpose, edification, concur, gnarled, polymath. And no wonder: While some have barely scanned a word list, others have practically nested with their dictionaries.
Over the winter, she'd take word lists to the gym and spell to the rhythm of her music on the treadmill. She's studied notecards while her dentist worked on her teeth. On a 13-hour drive to San Diego, she sped across the desert with a list of words beside the wheel. Others help out. One man at church offers a new word almost every Sunday. Ms. Leininger's mother dreamt last week she couldn't spell raccoon.
In the annals of adult bee preparation lurk several legends. There's the man who wrote a computer program that could quiz him on every word. There's the man who recorded tricky words on his MP3 player and listened to some while walking, some while running, and some with background music, hoping to discern which worked best. (In the end, his experiment was a failure or a wild success: He won first place, but had no way to compare techniques.)
Then there's Bill Long, whose website – famous in the adult bee community – has stricken fear in opponents' hearts. Dr. Long, a writer and legal consultant in Salem, Ore., has written 10 books. In the AARP bee, he's placed second twice, third once, and (embarrassingly, for him) 10th in 2007. Long now churns out essays on the meaning of words from intussusception to symphilism.
Ask bee contestants about Long's website, and they shudder with intimidation or sigh admiringly. If they were to exhibit parrhesia (to speak candidly), they might wish that Long's shadow were a little shorter.
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Denise Kantner is sticking to her mode of preparation: She's watched "Akeela and the Bee" 10 times. She remembers from last year's contest how intense some contestants were, hunching over tests to shield their work, lest a neighbor glimpse their spelling of yeuk or chaetognath.
To be fair, Ms. Kantner was nervous, too. When her husband enrolled her in last year's bee as a surprise, she told him, "Honey, I cannot do this. I'm a housewife in a small Midwestern agricultural town." But Kantner, who lives in Saline, Mich., gained confidence with her strong showing, coming within five words of the oral rounds. The Cheyenne bee "let me know I'm not as dumb as I look," says Kantner, who worried about not having a college degree.
Nearly all these contestants speak of words as their lifelong companions. Tony Suschil of Hudson, Ohio, calls the dictionary "one of my best friends." Mr. Suschil, who recently took first prize in the Northeast Ohio Senior Spelling Bee, says that even in middle school, he and his friends challenged one another with new words. These days, he pores over spelling notes he keeps in "a hideous orange folder" that he insists is bright enough to glow in the dark.
With Suschil's folder to guide him, word of Long's website preceding him, and Hardy's flights from Harrisburg to Philadelphia to Denver to Cheyenne, the group will meet for an icebreaker on Friday night, ready to battle phonemes and one another.
Hardy isn't worried. "What I hope to do is intimidate my opponent by showing him that no matter what the word is, I'm going to spell it evenly, clearly, competently, every single time," he says. That, he hopes, is an A-T-T-I-T-U-D-E that will bring victory.