Contestants sat in their seats at the Orange County Spelling Bee, each of the 37 waiting for a turn to step up to the podium. They squirmed inwardly as an especially tough word was pronounced, asking themselves, "Could I have spelled that?"
As each contestant took a turn at the Dec. 7 contest in Costa Mesa, a new word was pronounced, defined and then used in a sentence.
"A-p-p- e -r-t-e-n-a-n-c-e."
A buzzer sounded obnoxiously and the contestant was "down," knocked out of the sudden-death competition for misspelling one word.
For most, this would not be a fun evening. For others, it's the stuff of nightmares. But for a few. . . .
"Spelling bees have become like a career for me," said Dawn Stone, a 16-year-old senior at El Toro High School. She was the student who misspelled appurtenance--defined as "that which belongs to something else"--and thus was the second-place finisher at this year's county bee.
Sheela Rao, a sophomore at University High School in Irvine, was the winner after the 15-year-old corrected Stone's misspelling of appurtenance and went on to correctly spell "vicissitude."
"I love the challenge of spelling bees," Rao said. "Unless you know the word, there's no guarantee you'll be able to spell it."
Stone and Rao both advance to the California State High School Spelling Championships to be held April 28, 1990, at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill in Conta Costa County.
Both agree that there's only one way to prepare for spelling bees--practice. The practice method favored by each involves reading and writing seemingly endless lists of words, as well as spelling them orally. This preparation requires dedication on the part of the girls as well as others.
"My parents drilled me and so did my classmates on the OCAD (Orange County Academic Decathlon) team," said Stone, who is enrolled in a class at El Toro designed for students preparing to compete in the Academic Decathlon and other events like the spelling bee.
Rao went over the word lists--which numbered thousands of words and were provided to each contestant prior to the competition--several times before the contest. But she said her primary purpose for participating in the spelling bee was to gain experience.
"My goal was to make it to the oral (semifinals) round," she said. "I was really surprised when I won."
The girls plan to continue studying for the state championship.
"I'm going to keep my eyes open for new words in newspapers and magazines," Stone said.
Rao is "considering" reading Webster's Third New International Dictionary, considered the dictionary by spelling bee officials. "I knew a girl who did it once, though it got her so confused she didn't do very well that year . . . so maybe I better not," she concluded.
Rao does plan to review word lists from previous spelling bees as well as the lists she will receive from the state officials.
"I'm going to work on developing a way to spell words I really don't know," she said, citing her knowledge of Latin roots as a great help.
In spite of the time it takes to prepare for spelling competitions, the girls find time for other things.
Stone, who is also active in journalism, has been editor of her high school news magazine--The BullETin--since her sophomore year. She has won awards for feature and editorial writing.
Rao takes classes in classical Indian dance, the most ancient dance form developed around 5,000 BC. "It helps me keep in touch with my culture," she said.
Both are making plans to attend college. Stone is applying to Stanford, Harvard and Princeton--her first choice--and expects to major in English.
College is a little farther off for Rao, but she is already thinking about universities that would prepare her for medical school. "I'm thinking about Columbia, Johns Hopkins and Harvard. I want to be a general practitioner, although surgery also interests me."
In the meantime, Rao and Stone are preparing to improve upon their history of spelling bee success.
Stone began competing in the second grade, when she won her school spelling bee and made it to the county finals. In the sixth grade, she also placed second at the county championship and advanced to the state spelling bee.
"Spelling has always come naturally for me," Stone said. "I guess I like it because I do well."
Rao, too, experienced her greatest success to date in the sixth grade, when she reached the state finals. "That was the year I really became serious" about spelling, she said. "I studied really hard for the county spelling bees in my seventh- and eighth-grade years, but it didn't work out."
Now they've returned to the state finals, each planning, preparing and hoping for another spelling bee championship.