Area students are spell-bound

May 29, 1997


Staff Writer

Hagerstown resident Alfred "A.J." Smith found himself in a "mucilaginous" situation Wednesday during the first round of the National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C.

Smith, 14, missed his first word in the spelling competition, but he was not alone. Greencastle, Pa., resident Matt Tyson could not "convalesce" from his mistake and Hedgesville, W.Va., resident Lauren Penwell was "maudlin" after missing her word.

In addition, Berkeley Springs, W.Va., resident Kayleen DiMinno missed "picaresque."

Jessemae L. Welsh, an eighth-grader at Charles Town Junior High School, was the only Tri-State area speller left after the first round of competition. The contest resumes today at 1 p.m.


Smith, who earned the right to compete nationally by winning the Washington County competition in April, said he was nervous before the competition. When he got mucilaginous, which means sticky, he said he just did his best.

"I knew it was going to be hard," said Smith, an eighth-grader at St. Mary's School. "There was a girl who was 10 years old in sixth grade who had been there before."

Many of the contestants, in fact, had national spelling bee experience, Smith said.

Smith's mother, Vivienne, said the word was on a list of 750 words contestants were given to study. But she said many of the first round words were difficult.

"Not a word we use every day," she said. "Some of it was luck of the draw. About 95 percent of the words he could probably have spelled correctly."

Other words included "oleaginous," "xylophagous" and "myrmecologist." They helped winnow the 245-person field to 126 by the end of the first round.

"I wrote down a bunch of other first-round words," Smith said. "When I looked up some of them, I didn't even know how to pronounce them."

Smith did not have to stretch too much to have empathy for her son. She was part of a group of randomly selected parents who participated in a competition on Tuesday. Thirty teams of three squared off under identical conditions their children faced.

Smith said her team went out on the first word, too. They switched the double T on "frittata," a type of omelette.

"Some of the parents had been contestants, themselves, in years past," she said. "There were some really awesome spellers."

The Smiths will remain in Washington for the rest of the week and take part in a host of activities. Already, there has been an ice cream social for the kids, various tours and a barbecue.

There will be more tours and an awards banquet on Friday, Smith said. She said her son has met a number of new friends from different parts of the country.

"He's got some people he'd like to see win," she said.

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