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PHOTO: Alicia Solsman

Ready, Set, Spell

Bombers hosts a spelling bee with a grown-up twist


By Nicole Klaas

Kate Gladstone is articulate, confident, and most of all, a damn good s-p-e-l-l-e-r. And she’s not here to mess around. As 20-somethings munch on deep-fried goodies and sip on their pints, Gladstone—one among only a handful of adults over the age of 30—sits with her back to the large glass window that forms the front wall of the second floor at Bombers Burrito Bar in Albany.

Here, 29 contestants (and their friends) have gathered to participate in an old-school classic: the spelling bee. As they wait for the moderator to call them to the front stage, the participants—their names and contestant numbers scribbled onto construction paper and hung around their necks with string—mingle in the crowd.

“Contestant number one, please spell traceable,” says the moderator as she pushes her thick-framed rectangular eyeglasses up the bridge of her nose. The black glasses serve as the more subtle component of her ’90s schoolgirl costume: red plaid trousers, shiny red heels, and a red plaid button-down shirt with the collar tucked over a black Bombers T-shirt. The getup is completed by a pair of suspenders and, of course, pigtails.

“Traceable,” Gladstone says, separating the word into its respective syllables as she pronounces it. “T-R-A-C,” she emphatically enunciates each letter, “E-A-B-L-E. Traceable.”

“That’s correct,” says the middle judge at the three-person judging table to the left of the moderator. He’s dressed the part of the teacher: blue button-down tucked into a pair of trousers, striped tie, and a similar pair of black-framed specs.

Gladstone returns to her seat near the corner opposite the judge’s table. She claps politely when a contestant spells correctly, holding her bottom hand steady as the fingers of her top hand rap lightly upon the opposite palm.

This isn’t the spelling be you remember from elementary school. For one, contestants weren’t forced to participate by teachers who clearly didn’t understand the I’m-going-to-pee-my-pants type of fear the shy kids had of public speaking or the humiliation that would come from being disqualified first. On the other hand, the mild taunting and foul language—which may have earned a third grader a trip to the princi-p-a-l’s (“the principal is your pal”) office, or the teacher a date with the faculty-review board—is acceptable, if not encouraged, at the spelling bee for grown-ups.

“Please spell . . . cataclysm.”

“Cataclysm. C-A-T-E-C-H-L-Y-S-M,” spells contestant 21 during the first of 10 rounds of the competition. “Cataclysm.” She looks to the judging table for the verdict, which she receives promptly in the form of buzzer that sounds just like the one used in the word game Taboo.

“Not even close,” the judge jeers with a chuckle, adding insult to the buzzer’s injury.

At that moment, when a third-grader may have responded with tears, a voice from the audience instead hollered in the speller’s defense: “No commentary!”

As the spelling bee proceeds to the second round, third round, and beyond, Gladstone remains intently engaged in the competition. She watches and listens to each speller as they attempt words ranging from tantrum to kaleidoscope and barrette to pneumonia.

“Contestant 12, please spell ecstasy.”

The contestant, a man by the name of Dave, begins to spell. “E-X,” he says, as Gladstone immediately begins defiantly thrusting her head from left to right, displaying her observance of the misspell, “S-T-A-S-Y.”

“That’s incorrect.”

Even in its grown-up form, the spelling bee seems to attract the usual characters from the competitions of yesteryear. For example, contestant 10, a man named Jonathan, displays the look-at-the-ceiling-as-though-the-word-is-written-up-there approach as he spells. Contestant number 15, Stefan, opts for the I-spell-like-a- monotone-robot style.

There are also those few who refuse to walk away gracefully. Take, for example, contestant 24, Erika, who misspells the word superintendent during round two.

“That’s incorrect,” the judge says.

“What? Fuck you!” Erika quickly retorts, before slouching back into the front booth.

The bee is double elimination, but it takes only two rounds for the pool of contestants to begin dwindling. After round six, 15 remain, including Cynthia, who somewhere between round one and round six has officially renamed herself Ass Monkey by flipping her name tag to reveal the new identity. She is disqualified during the following round.

The ninth round opens, again, with Gladstone. “Kate, please spell paraffin,” the moderator says, pronouncing the word as ‘pair-uh-fin.’

“Could I get a definition?” Gladstone inquires. She listens to the definition (a white or colorless, tasteless, odorless solid substance) before correcting the moderator’s and judge’s pronunciation of what Gladstone says is actually ‘par-uh-fin.’

Chuckles ripple through the crowded room. With only one round remaining, and a perfect spelling record so far, Gladstone has automatically qualified as a finalist for the Feb. 25 championship bee.

“Study hard,” says a man from the crowd. “Take that lady down.”

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