hosts a spelling bee with a grown-up twist
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.
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.
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.”
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
spell . . . 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.
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.
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.”
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
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.
incorrect,” the judge says.
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
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
hard,” says a man from the crowd. “Take that lady down.”