At 10 p.m. Thursday in the tiny hamlet of Carlisle, Penn., a crowd in the local sports bar huddled around ESPN. Hushed silence, tense lip-biting, beers suspended in mid-drink and then cheers. Was it football? Baseball? Soccer? No, tonight's game was the 2011 Scripps National Spelling Bee, and local girl Joanna Ye was crushing the competition.
From 275 kids, ages 8-14 from 50 states and many countries, the field had been whittled down to five. Carlisle is a town of about 18,000 people, and the Spelling Bee was the biggest thing to hit the town since the South shelled the courthouse in the Civil War.
At a nearby table, a wiseguy pulled out his phone to read aloud tweets from the audience. Then Joanna spelled "capercaillie" and the crowd went wild.
As for me, my spelling bee nightmares have never really gone away. I still can see my third grade class, a musty gymnasium, a nasty geography teacher who rang the "You got it wrong" bell with too much evident glee.
I can empathize with the pressure these tweens and teenagers must have dealt with on that national stage. At mine, there was no global press, no $40,000 in prizes, no gatherings of celebrities, but it was virtually identical in every other way. Well, in some ways, anyway.
For round after round, the five superspellers went toe-to-toe-to-toe-to-toe-to -- you get the picture.
Before our Big Bee, we studied the dictionary -- the Internet didn't exist back then, if you can believe that. We studied encyclopedias written by real writers, not wiki'd ones. We even asked our crazy uncles to spell the weirdest words they knew. And we were spanked.
Do not imagine that we were happy when someone spelled "neighbor" with an "i" before "e" because we could see that no matter whom the bell tolled for, it tolled for we. This was a spelling test, not a grammar test, by the way.
Joanna asked the audience if anyone was tired yet and we laughed. She was more than a spelling machine: She was one of us.
I'm not ashamed to say I was eliminated at 11th place. I knew how to spell "libraries" and had done so a thousand times. But with the spotlights and survivor's guilt and looking at the other kids on stage with me, it was too much. An extra "r" crept into my "libraries" and I went home with it.
On stage at the Scripps, shortly after 11 p.m., the unthinkable happened. Joanna forgot that "Galoubet" was a French horse, so she spelled it the Anglo-Saxon way "Galubey." I say the horse wouldn't have minded, so I'd take either spelling, but the bell spoke otherwise. As a consolation, she took fan favorite Arvind Mahankali down with her in this brutal round.
Remember, in spelling bees, there are no losers -- just stings and honey. Joanna finished fifth last year and tied for third tonight. Though there is no joy in Mudville, we (like Cubs fans), got next season.
Congratulations to Sukanya Roy of Wilkes-Barre, Penn., for keeping the trophy in the state by correctly spelling the common nickname for wavy hair as "cymotrichous." And congratulations to Joanna from the gang at the bar. In seven years, we'll have a cold one waiting for you.