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With a crowd of more than 300 family members, teachers and special supporters, 25 students competed for the title of winner at the 2023 Prince George’s County Spelling Bee presented by The Washington Informer and Washington Informer Charities, hosted at the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center on March 17.
Eighth grader Lesly Hernandez Martin walked away as the champion and will be granted automatic entrance to the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
This year’s Scripps competition is being held at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in Fort Washington, Maryland, a mere 30-minute commute from The Clarice.
Washington Gas, Pepco, Educational Systems Federal Credit Union, Comcast, Safeway, the Prince George’s County Chamber of Commerce, Merriam-Webster, Silver Spring Signarama, the Clarice Performing Arts Center, the Scripps National Spelling Bee and the Foundation for the Advancement of Music and Education (FAME) were the sponsors of the 2023 Prince George’s County Spelling Bee. The Educational Systems Federal Credit Union provided shirts for the contestants and judges.
Tracye Funn, of Washington Gas, which has sponsored the scholastic event for more than 10 years, said, “the Spelling Bee is a fun, interactive, challenging way to remind youth about the importance of spelling.”
“I write speeches and information for press releases, and internal and external releases, and spelling is critical,” added Funn, who has been with Washington Gas more than 35 years, and is currently manager of Corporate Contributions.
Despite the birth and evolution of autocorrect, Tami Watkins, director of Regulatory Affairs with Comcast, said spelling is still key.
“Even in a digital age, there is still some reward in natural talent and ability. That character is important and it’s important that we are still instilling good spelling in young people,” she said.
Pepco Senior Corporate Specialists Tamica Jones and Ralph Bolton both emphasized why spelling is integral even today.
“Spelling and email etiquette is extremely important, as it’s one’s non-verbal line of communication,” said Jones.
Prepping for the Event
The students gathered behind the stage to get snacks, tea, water, advice and reassurance before the Bee began. Ronald Burke, The Informer’s director of advertising and marketing, asked who was going to win. Several of the students raised their hands quickly.
“There are no winners and losers. You’re a winner just by getting here,” Burke told contestants as they mentally prepared to compete.
The sponsors offered encouraging words that emphasized the strength each student possessed.
Funn guided the students through a deep breathing exercise.
“This will help you to clear your mind and focus,” she said. “No matter what happens tonight, you are a winner because you had to compete to get to this spot.”
Jones and Watkins told the students of the services their businesses provide to county residents.
A. Toni Lewis, the CEO of FAME, told the students that her program offers free music and academic tutoring as needed.
“The children are the most important thing in hosting the spelling bee.” said Chauka Reid, the Prince George’s Spelling Bee coordinator. “I have been doing this for over 10 years, and the most has had 35 or so spellers.”
Longtime broadcaster and Bee moderator Dave Zahren said hosting the bee takes a lot of work.
“First and foremost, you do your homework. Get as much information as you can so you can ask intelligent questions. Have enthusiasm for what you’re doing. I’ve always had the attitude that if I’m having a good time, others are too. It’s important to make the people in the audience feel comfortable. Have empathy and read the room.”
In the tunnel just before the event started and while Zahren introduced each contestant and fun facts about them, several of the contestants said they had seen the classic film “Akeelah and the Bee,” starring Keke Palmer.
Zahren offered to use the word in a sentence, provide the definition and repeat the word if requested.
“But I won’t spell the word for you. Someone asked me that last year,” he said to laughter. He also declined to offer root origin.
Miriam Keita, a 6th grader at Cooper Lane Elementary who enjoys math and science, had participated in the Prince George’s County Spelling Bee before and lasted 12 rounds.
“I remember being on stage. People were pretty nervous, so we would push through and encourage each other. Before our turns, we would calm ourselves down.”
During the Competition: The Ins and Outs
Several of the students employed tactics to keep themselves on track, particularly spelling out words on the palms of their hands or forearms. Keeping calm and spelling slowly was essential to their performance.
Kenson Okah, an 8th grader at Accokeek Academy who enjoys gaming, was up first. The first word was “magician” and he spelled it correctly to the applause of the crowd. The first word to cause an out was “ozone,” followed by “nationalism,” and “yippee.” During the delay between the first and second round, another speller was disqualified as the panel did not hear the proper spelling.
The second round had outs with words like “periwinkle,” and “buffoonery.” After “dynamite” and “vegetarian” were misspelled, only eight contestants remained to begin the fourth round.
The fourth round ended with just four spellers left: 5th grader Nico Natividad of Heather Hills Elementary; 5th grader Cameron Pointer of National Christian Academy; 7th grader Johan Pereira of St. Mary of the Mills School, and winner 8th grader Hernandez Martin of Kenmoor Middle.
All four contestants misspelled their respective words in the next round, giving all of them a chance again in the fifth round.
After all four contestants returned to the stage for round six, Hernandez Martin successfully spelled “pollutant” to survive to the next round but as the sole fifth round contestant, she misspelled “umbrage” in round seven and the four returned to the stage for round eight. Hernandez Martin spelled “cantankerous” correctly and Pointer spelled “berserk” correctly, securing their spots in the ninth round and a chance at victory.
More than 10 rounds continued with joint misspellings that kept Pointer and Hernandez Martin from winning outright. Hernandez Martin, who is part of her school’s National Honor Society, won by correctly spelling “quintessential.”
“This hard work was worth it! It was so worth it.” she said on the mic shortly after her victory. “I have so many classmates and teachers rooting for me. You guys are so supportive, I love you guys,” she said while gesturing to the audience. Her father later acknowledged her hard work and dedication.
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