Last updated: February 16. 2013 3:29AM - 245 Views

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IF YOU WANTED to see the epitome of joyful surprise, you had to have your eyes on Devin Reed when word pronouncer Jean Lynott said the sixth-grader had won the regional spelling bee.

Mind you, Jean - a former Times Leader colleague - had a wide grin, too, but Devin looked like Charlie Bucket right after he found a golden ticket granting him a visit to Willie Wonka's candy factory.

Heck, Devin's slightly curled hair, fresh face and bright eyes would make him a fine double for Peter Ostrum, the actor who played the lucky boy in the 1971 movie version of Roald Dahl's classic book.

A judge at the regional bee since 2007, I keep volunteering despite the time it takes to prepare (we go through much of the word list to gain confidence in pronunciations). And I keep coming back despite the effort it takes to remain impartial.

I can't help but wish I could offer a little advice, like "ask for an alternate pronunciation!" or "Ask for the word used in a sentence!" Every year I suspect at least one or two contestants would have survived another round that way simply because the primary pronunciation is not the way they've heard the word spoken.

When you see this up close and personal, you really do hate to hear any of them misspell. Each year we inevitably yearn to send three or four, rather than one, to the national bee in Washington, D.C.

There is gripping drama in watching them mentally grabble for the right letters (grabble: from a Dutch word - move the hand, as in searching, in a groping fashion).

There is a compelling back story of encouraging parents. Before the bee, one mother asked a colleague if spellers had to include diacritical marks, such as the umlaut (originally German - two adjacent dots placed over a vowel to indicate partial assimilation to a succeeding sound) or macron (from Greek - that little dash above a vowel showing it is long).

The answer is no, though you may be asked to spell a diacritical mark. Both umlaut and macron were on our list this year, though contestants were doing so well, we skipped ahead to tougher words before reaching umlaut.

To survive, spellers had to know their Maine lobster from a South or American langosta (from Latin to Spanish, a spiny lobster from our southern neighbors.)

They had to give the spelling according to Webster's Third New International Dictionary, not a putative spelling (from Latin, commonly accepted or supposed).

They had to think outside the colloquial box ("henna" is a dye from a plant, not an idiom for "isn't it").

And they had to endure a total of 113 words spelled in 11 rounds that took a bit more than an hour to complete.

Watching sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students compete in a spelling bee is a bit like looking into the past, sure. Remember standing in your class back then and trying to pull the right letters from nowhere?

But it's also a peek into the future. These are bright children willing to train for and face the substantial pressure of regional and national competitions.

Watch them and your confidence in tomorrow grows.

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