Candidate No. 19, Sydney Speizman, stood patiently onstage and looked expectantly at the judges as they whispered frantically below her. It was Round 3 of the Howard County Library Spelling Bee, and the judges had just paused for their third official delay of the night.
Moments before, Speizman, a fourth-grader at Glenelg Country School, had been asked to spell "embroiderer," and she nailed it. The catch? She should have been given the verb "embroider."
The judges reached their conclusion: Recall the word. They asked the pronouncer, Howard County Economic Development Authority head Richard W. Story, to give Speizman another: "Consecrate."
She spelled it wrong. Speizman was out, or so she thought.
A clause in the rule book states that an appeal may be filed by a parent, legal guardian or teacher of a speller seeking reinstatement in the contest. Faith Horowitz, Speizman's mother, argued that her daughter had correctly spelled the word she'd been given the first time.
Unanimously, the judges agreed.
Speizman was back in the contest and, along with 11 others, advanced to Round 4.
Friday night's spelling bee at Howard High School showcased 39 students in grades 4 through 8, who had triumphed over nearly 5,000 student participants in classroom and school bees leading up to the countywide event. Of the 39 schools represented, 27 were public schools, 10 were private and 2 were home-school associations.
There were high stakes: The winner of the Howard County bee would receive a $1,000 scholarship and a spot in the 78th Scripps National Spelling Bee held in June in the District.
Thanks to ESPN's coverage of the National Spelling Bee and the 2002 documentary "Spellbound," bees have received a surge of attention in recent years. Howard, however, has been slow to pick up on the trend.
Kelli Shimabukuro, branch manager at the East Columbia branch of the county library system, grew up in Ohio, where spelling bees were a "big to-do," she said. The absence of a countywide spelling bee here seemed a glaring omission.
"Howard County is known for its great schools and putting an emphasis on education. I thought it was odd that we didn't have any coverage or sponsorship of [spelling bees] in our area," she said.
Shimabukuro called Scripps and asked if a library could sponsor a competition. Though no library had ever done so before, Scripps gave her the go-ahead. The Baltimore Sun agreed to fund the bee, and the details of the competition were spelled out.
Events like this are important, Shimabukuro said, because "spelling is becoming a lost art. A lot of kids and adults depend on spell check and it's not the answer. You can't always have spell check available."