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The Belle Spell

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Last week, I went to one of my favorite events: the annual spelling beer.

The actual title is the Memphis Literacy Council's Annual Corporate Spelling Bee, but because it's held at the Coors Belle -- and the company's adult beverages are complementary -- I fondly call it the spelling beer.

I know what you're thinking. A spelling bee? At your age?

First of all, it's for a good cause. About 23 percent of adults in Memphis read below a fifth-grade level. (I also have a vested interest in literacy.) And second, the bee is really fun.

Most people have a spelling bee story: the word they missed in the final round that they've never gotten wrong since, or how the whole sixth grade laughed when they misspelled organism. For me, there was the year the Flyer team donated $50 to get a new word (we weren't sure if fondue had an "e" or not) and instead had to spell catachresis. There also was the year we thought teratology sounded like the study of the earth (terratology?), but it was the study of monstrosities.

And then two years ago, I learned exactly how alcohol inhibits brain function.

My team was up. It was one of the final rounds. The word was mariachi. My teammates knew the spelling immediately, but I remember thinking, what in the world is a mariachi? I think a look of terror even passed over my face. Mariachi? Mariachi! I wasn't even sure I knew the first few letters (which, in retrospect, is a little embarrassing considering my name, the first word I ever learned).

But on to this year. Before the bee, participating teams and their cheering sections eat boxed dinners of club sandwiches or veggie pitas from McAlister's Deli. Some people cram (spelling words, not dinner) while others simply take in the room. When the Coors' plant closes in 2007, Memphis will surely lose its oddest meeting place. Fashioned after a Mississippi River steamboat, right up to its "dock" exterior and faux paddlewheel, the Belle has low molded ceilings and "windows" that look onto a mural of a 19th-century riverfront town.

As with riverboat gamblers, teams come from all over the county to compete. Former team-to-beat International Paper is here. McAlister's has a team, as does Merrill Lynch and Clay and Land Insurance. The team with The Commercial Appeal always does well, and MLGW is ready to defend their title. But with teams from Davis-Kidd, Barnes & Noble, and Memphis University School, it could be anybody's game.

The spelling bee begins with fairly easy words: alligator, incentive. Some of the spellers seem quite serious, like grown-up versions of the little kids in the documentary Spellbound. Except they probably -- probably -- are not coached by their parents.

The first team to go out misses on "mantilla," spelling it M-A-N-T-I-A.

In addition to paying $50 to get a new word, the spelling bee offers other options that you don't get in grade school. For an additional $50, you can foist that same horrible how-the-heck-do-you-spell-that? word on another team. Lastly, all three members of a team can go to the mic together, get the word, then discuss it before one person does the "apple: A-P-P-L-E; apple" bit.

Sometimes, the word choices don't seem fair. In one round, relatively easy words such as "hooligan," "conjugate," "cuisine," and "literati" are being asked, but one team gets "vanadium" (a metallic element used to form alloys).

"It's not my fault," official pronouncer and radio personality Tom Prestigiacomo tells the unfortunate team.

Near the end, the contest is narrowed down to Merrill Lynch, MLGW, McAlister's, and the CA. MLGW goes out on "rasgado." The next round the CA and McAlister's run into trouble. It looks like it could be Merrill Lynch ... but, for some reason, they bring the other two teams back. McAlister's spells "furlough." The CA spells "adherend." The words get harder. McAlister's misses "sigillate" (and who can blame them?) and Merrill Lynch bites the dust on "meniscus." The CA team only needs to spell its next word correctly to win.

That word is ... "psychedelic." A collective groan goes around the room.

And so, on a fake riverboat near the airport, the bee and our beer finished, we remember that only one team gets the last word. •

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