Holy Family teen buzzes to top spot in spelling bee

In a subdued celebration of her victory, Maura Lake, 13, smiles slightly and sways back and forth with her thumbs in her pockets after winning the Mesa County District 51 Spelling Bee Saturday at Bookcliff Middle School by spelling the word “cephalopod” correctly. Maura is a seventh grade student at Holy Family Catholic School. Second place went to Leila Espinoza, 11, a sixth-grader at Redlands Middle School.

The word was “unctuous,” and it really was: an oily, overly smooth Eddie Haskell of a word, radiating smugness.

“Can you repeat the word?” asked Camila Moreno, 12, a seventh-grader at Holy Family Catholic School, after a weighty pause upon first hearing it read.

Cathie Gonzales repeated the word, and it was still “unctuous,” so Camila took a deep breath.

“U ...,” she began, and paused to look ceiling-ward, not really seeing the tiles as she ran through the possibilities in her head.

“N ...,” and another pause.

“C?” It wasn’t really a question, but a precipice into the word’s unknown second half. “I-O-U-S.”

That’s the spelling that makes phonetic sense, but “unctuous” has a T and a ridiculous three U’s. Still, having earlier conquered dozens of other words in the 2014 Mesa County District Spelling Bee, Camila earned third place out of a field that began with almost 60 competitors in grades 6, 7 and 8.

The Saturday morning competition drew spellers from middle schools around the district, students who know that “portmanteau” has that tricky French ending and “crystalline” has two L’s.

In an era when good spelling gets a dismissive “that’s what spellcheck is for,” Dori Harrison likes to remind her students that “spellcheck doesn’t catch everything.”

“It’s about being a literate member of society and having ownership of the language,” said the Bookcliff Middle School eighth-grade literacy teacher.

Harrison coaches the Bookcliff spelling team and organized Saturday’s spelling bee. The event began with a written test of 50 words that started with “jam” and ended with “elysium.”

“I think ‘jam’ was kind of a waste of a word,” confided Graycie Hanson, 11, a sixth-grader at Redlands Middle School. “It was too easy.”

Her difficult word came in round six of the oral competition, in which the top 24 spellers from the written test competed. The word: “genoise,” a type of sponge cake.

Graycie appeared a little startled to hear it. “Can you repeat the word, please?” she asked Gonzales, the retired director of curriculum for District 51.

Gonzales did, and Graycie asked her for the word’s origins.

“The origin is French, which took it from the Italian geographical region,” Gonzales said.

“J-E-A-N,” Graycie said all in a rush, “O-S-E?”

Again, that’s the spelling that makes sense, but spelling doesn’t always make sense. Graycie earned fifth place.

Through the rounds, through “hermitage” and “vitriolic,” “panache,” “laureate” and “quadrillion,” students demonstrated that even if they spelled the word incorrectly, their mastery of the language is growing.

And when they spelled the words right? Well, then it came down to Leila Espinoza, 11, a sixth-grader at Redlands Middle School, and Maura Lake, 13, a seventh-grader at Holy Family Catholic School.

Leila went out on “erstwhile” and Maura correctly spelled “portmanteau.” She had to spell one more word to win.

“Cephalopod,” Gonzales enunciated.

Maura paused for a moment, running through it in her head, through the times when she asked her parents to quiz her on words, and then without pausing, “C-E-P-H-A-L-O-P-O-D.”



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