SNN reporter Beth Heinen Bell covers this year’s regional competition and reflects on her own bee experience. Photography by Dianne Carroll Burdick
Kent ISD — After Harbor Lights Middle School’s Zachary Honeycutt was declared the winner at this year’s Greater Grand Rapids Spelling Bee, the seventh-grader turned and extended a hand in congratulations to runner-up, Felicia DeVisser.
It was a small gesture — one that might be routine or overlooked, were this any other year. But after 12 months of social distancing and virtual events, this small moment of connection between Zachary and Plymouth Christian Elementary’s Felicia felt notable to me. And it was exactly what Bee organizers had hoped for as they sought to find a safe way to bring spellers together after the disappointments of last year.
Can you compete?
Test the spelling prowess of your family and friends using words from the final rounds of the 2021 Greater Grand Rapids Spelling Bee:
Round 13: Flagon, stalwart, noctambulist
Round 14: Trigonometry, ursine
Round 15: Gregorian, univocal
Round 16: Dalmatian, gasiform
Round 17 (championship round): Neonatology
‘It was really nerve-wracking, but also exciting. I’m very competitive, so I practiced a lot.’— Grandville seventh-grader Lyra Mitra
“The whole setup was totally different from anything we have ever done, but we were able to make it happen,” said MaryNell Baldwin, spelling bee coordinator for Kent ISD. “Last year it was so sad when we had to cancel just a week before the Greater Grand Rapids Spelling Bee and could not reschedule due to (COVID-19) restrictions. I was just glad we could make it happen in a safe way for the spellers, who had worked so hard.”
I first crossed paths with Baldwin back in the 1990s when I was a speller at this very same Bee, and Baldwin was in her early years as an organizer. Back then, the idea of wearing a mask when I wasn’t spelling probably would have sent my young, nervous energy into overdrive. And I never imagined that someday this competition would include one speller participating via the internet, from her home.
Yet that’s exactly what happened on Tuesday evening.
In the Commons of the Kent Career Tech Center, 20 regional spelling bee winners came together — one of them Zooming in from home due to family health concerns — to compete for the chance to represent West Michigan at the National Spelling Bee. Although school sporting events have been in person for several months, this was the first time some students had the opportunity to compete in an in-person event since the pandemic began.
That was a big reason Baldwin and other organizers pushed for a face-to-face gathering. While the Scripps National Spelling Bee provided an online platform that they used for the area’s regional spelling bees, “that isn’t the whole experience,” she said.
“A lot of the spelling bee experience comes from being in front of people, learning to manage your nerves and composing yourself to spell under pressure. And it’s learning about language, so that you can ask and understand those questions about a word’s language of origin or its definition.”
Added Baldwin: “Some kids excel in sports and have lots of opportunities to have that be recognized in front of others. Some excel in academics, and in spelling in particular, and they really love competing in the Bee. This is their opportunity to shine and be recognized for the equally hard work they put in.”
‘Some Sort of Normalcy’
Grandville Middle School seventh-grader Lyra Mitra has been putting in that hard work for more than a year now. Last year, after winning both her school and regional spelling bees, she was studying for the 2020 Greater GR Bee when the pandemic shut everything down. She had to start the qualifying process all over again this year.
“It really brings up a lot of different emotions,” said Lyra’s father, Tuhin Mitra, of the delayed gratification for his daughter’s hard work. He was Lyra’s cheerleader in Tuesday night’s limited audience, recording every round for her mother and younger siblings, one of whom is recovering from leukemia treatments.
“It’s a feeling of some sort of normalcy coming back, having Lyra come in and participate and see the results of what she was preparing for,” Mitra told me. “She was working really hard last year and then it got canceled, so that was a deflating feeling. But I could see that she was getting pumped up for it again, really going after it this year. We didn’t know what this (spelling bee) was going to look like, but we knew it was going to happen, and I knew she was going to prepare for it, no matter what.”
Those preparations propelled Lyra to a fourth-place finish in this year’s event. As a fully remote student in Grandville this year, she said the in-person aspect was “a little overwhelming,” but agreed with Baldwin that it was better than the online option.
“It was weird because all of this time I’ve been remote, so it’s like there’s so many people around me when I’m just used to my family,” she said. “It was really nerve-wracking, but also exciting. I’m very competitive, so I practiced a lot. I’m pretty glad with how things went tonight, but I definitely plan to be back next year.”
‘It’s, Like, a Big Deal’
Champion Zachary also appreciated the return to relatively normal competition. Although the Holland student has been participating in (and winning!) school bees since the third grade, this was his first Greater GR Bee. After battling Felicia for three rounds, he emerged victorious in the 17th round by correctly spelling “neonatology.”
“I came in kind of nervous and knew that there were a lot of great spellers here, so I was kind of intimidated,” Zachary said. “I was a little surprised that I did this well. Spelling kind of comes naturally (to me), but some of the words I didn’t know, so I guess I just kind of got lucky.
“I’m excited about nationals, but also super-nervous, because it’s, like, a big deal.”
Of course, the National Spelling Bee competition also will look different this year. Because of the ongoing pandemic the preliminary, quarterfinal and semifinal segments will all be held virtually. The top 10-12 finalists will then be invited to the in-person final rounds, held this year in Orlando, Florida instead of Washington, D.C.
Even if his national experience ends up being mostly (or all) online, Zachary said he was thankful for the chance to see his West Michigan competitors face-to-face — to be able to look them in the eye, and to extend that handshake of congratulations.
“I really enjoy doing spelling bees in person; I feel like you get more of the full experience, and virtual really isn’t my thing,” he said. “It’s been a long time where everything has just kind of been rough with COVID, so I’m glad we can move back into doing things like this again.”
From one speller to another, that’s called r-e-s-i-l-i-e-n-c-e.