Tougher rules weed out contestants

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

TUBA CITY, Feb. 23, 2012

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(Special to the Times - Donovan Quintero)

Andrew McClellan, a third grader at Hilltop Christian School, spells a word Feb. 16 at the Fort Defiance Agency Spelling Bee at the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock.

A third grade spelling bee contestant thinks about how to spell a word Feb. 16 at the Fort Defiance Agency Spelling Bee at the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock.

Gone are the days when the agency spelling bees would run into 20 or 30 rounds as two good spellers duked it out. At last week's Central and Western agency spelling bees, what extra rounds there were usually were due to everybody misspelling.

It's not that this year's contestants were worse spellers (indeed, quite a few of them were the same contestants as in previous years). It's that one little rule change made it a whole lot tougher.


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The Navajo Nation's Office of Youth Development, which runs the annual Scripps-Howard bee in the two agencies, had previously issued lists of all potential words to each participating school. So the winners ended up being not necessarily the best spellers, but rather the best memorizers, said Shawna Claw of the OYD's Chinle office.

"They weren't learning things like prefixes, suffixes and language of origin," Claw explained. "They were just memorizing spellings."

This put them at a real disadvantage when they got to the Navajo Nation bee, and especially the national bee, where they don't issue word lists.

The kids still had ample opportunity to study. Scripps-Howard issues an annual "Spell-It" guide with sample words, and there are plenty of online resources.

The hope was that they would become better guessers when they didn't know a word, by knowing, for example, that words of Greek origin often use a "ch" for a "k" sound, whereas in a word of French origin, that sound is likely to be represented by "que."

Throughout the bees, it was evident that Claw was right: The kids had been memorizing. When confronted by a word they didn't know, some of them sequenced letters almost at random (a "k" in "xylophone"?).

Still, some contestants, and especially some sponsors, were miffed.

"No fair!" sobbed one child.

"They could have warned us," muttered a sponsor, noting that she had been expecting a word list up until the day before the bee.

Some of the usual contenders fared well in spite of the stricter rules. Perennial rivals Aarish Raza and Samuel Yeager, now schoolmates at Chinle Junior High, were at it again in the Central Agency seventh-grade competition.

Raza bested Yeager last year after the three top spellers went 30 rounds, and this year the tables turned with Yeager on top.

"I don't know where he gets it," admitted his father, Kevin Yeager. "I can't spell worth beans."

Not one to rest on his laurels, Samuel was already preparing for next month's Navajo Nation bee, sitting through the eighth-grade competition and jotting down words he didn't know.

Jaclyn Jack of Piñon Elementary, who placed first in the fourth-grade competition last year, was second in fifth-grade this year, falling to Noel Reed of Many Farms Elementary, who claimed one of her secrets is faithfully reading the Navajo Times once her uncle is through with it.

But other familiar faces dropped out of the contest early on. Marc Aruguete inexplicably tripped in the first round of the fourth-grade contest on "baton," spelling it "batoon."

(His brother Abraham upheld the family tradition started by brother Joseph and sister Esther in years past, winning the sixth-grade competition).

In Western Agency, Emmarie Comaad of Tuba City, who won the Navajo Nation bee two years ago, also was sidelined early, leaving the silent "h" out of "posthumous."

Comaad missed the bee last year due to illness, and, as an eighth-grader, will be too old for next year's bee.

She put on a brave face, maintaining she was "just happy to be here," but her Facebook page revealed a different story.

"So disappointed," she posted from her smart phone.

The new rules took their toll at the Western bee. Twenty fourth-graders started the match, and by the second round, only five were left standing.

By Round 4, three survived, and for the next four rounds, the lead kept rotating as it would get down to one speller and he or she would mess up on his or her "championship" word (you have to spell two words in a row correctly to win otherwise whoever was eliminated in the previous round is brought back into the competition).

Finally, in Round 7, the last two standing, Tuba City Boarding School's Alannah-Grace Mangubat and Jayme Begay, both misspelled ("scampy" for "scampi" and "heffer" for "heifer," respectively) before Mangubat went out on "diablo" and Begay correctly spelled "spinet" and then "veteran."

Eighth-graders Sonny Ramey of Hotevilla-Bacavi Community School and Patrick Jansen Malazarte of Tuba City Junior High similarly alternated the lead for seven rounds, with both misspelling rather than spelling correctly.

"Palmetto," "gingham," "peaceable," "luminaria," "readjourn," "stabilizer," "technophobia," "ducal," "quoddy," "flicflac," "perfidy," "finesse," and "macramé" all tripped the boys up, until finally Ramey correctly spelled "slanderous" and Malazarte left the "h" out of "ultralight." Ramey then correctly spelled "drapery" to win.

Leaving out a letter proved fatal to Malazarte again in the final, championship spell-off pitting the top two competitors in each grade. He stumbled on "marshmallow" by forgetting the second "m."

That left Ramey and sixth-grade runner-up Edick Nuesca to battle it out until Nuesca emerged victorious.

A beaming Ramey credited his good showing to "pure luck," while a blushing Malazarte was left to the questionable mercy of his fellow word geeks, who taunted him by yelling "marshmallow!" every time he walked down the hall for the rest of the afternoon.

It's a word he will never misspell again.

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