WASHINGTON, D.C. – How we got from bedtime stories involving bowls full of mush and a young mouse to nightly quizzes on Latin roots and the proper spellings of vibrissae (nostril hairs) and nudicaudate (having a hairless tail) is a bit of a blur.

In clear focus, however, on a red-carpeted stage under the bright lights of television, was the daughter we brought home from Maine Med 13 years ago.

Lily is Maine’s representative to the Scripps National Spelling Bee, the semifinals and finals of which will happen today in a ballroom of the Grand Hyatt Hotel, for live broadcast on ESPN and, later tonight, on ABC.

Normally, anything involving semifinals and finals means I’m scribbling notes in a steno book, trying to conjure a tale intriguing enough to entice newspaper readers to continue to the end of the story.

On Thursday that was J.P. Finlay’s job. He’s a freelance writer hired by this newspaper to cover Lily’s appearance in the national bee. Reporters from two television stations also interviewed her, one affiliated with Portland’s WMTW and another with some entity in Korea. Or perhaps Japan. Lily wasn’t sure. Questions came through an interpreter.

After spending most of one’s professional life covering competitions of one sort or another, of witnessing the inevitable highs and lows, of trying to extract pearls of insight from both victors and vanquished, one tends to remain somewhat aloof.

Sure, you root for good things to happen to good people. Mainly, you root for good stories. You take seriously the rule about no cheering in the press box.

Is it more nerve-wracking watching your own kid compete?

The simple answer is no. Seeing her approach the microphone and listening to Jacques Bailly — the bee’s official pronouncer and its 1980 national champ — deliver her words in rounds two and three Thursday, the feeling was similar to that for any Little League parent whose child is digging in against the big kid with the facial hair (whoa — vibrissae!) and the wicked fastball.

You want them to succeed. You understand that failure is possible. You’re hoping they don’t make a dumb mistake.

And she didn’t. She nailed “taipan” and “vacatur.” Which meant that in four spelling bees this year — school, county, state and national — she never missed a word at the mike.

She missed the cut for today’s semifinals because of Wednesday’s written test, a 50-word challenge designed to winnow the field of 273. All of the spellers took it at various times, listening to Bailly’s recorded voice through headphones, tapping out answers on computer keyboards, away from parents.

Only 25 of the words count toward the score, with one point for each correct spelling. Words spelled correctly in front of the audience are worth three points, meaning a perfect score — Lily heard there were a couple this year — is 31. The cut for the semifinals was 27. She finished with 24.

Forty-eight kids advanced. Two hundred and twenty-five tied for 49th, because bee officials don’t release individual scores except to spellers and their parents.

Of those competing today, 20 have been here before. Eight are three-time finalists and one, Neetu Chandak of Geneva, N.Y., is a four-timer.

The sportswriter in me understood that this was the likely outcome. The father in me dared to dream, that if Lily correctly spelled both preliminary-round words on stage, she might sneak into the semis.

So, yes, there was disappointment. But it didn’t last long.

Bee Week is about so much more than the competition. We arrived on Sunday and visited Mount Vernon, home of George and Martha Washington, overlooking the Potomac River.

On Monday morning we toured the new ballpark of the Washington Nationals, and Lily and her brothers threw pitches in the bullpen. Peeking into the oval clubhouse, we spotted the locker of Livan Hernandez, a Cuban refugee whom I covered in his early professional days with the Sea Dogs, and who learned English with help from Lily’s current seventh-grade Spanish teacher, Susan Dana.

On Tuesday morning, with help from Sen. Olympia Snowe’s office, we visited the White House. On Tuesday afternoon we joined spellers and their families for a barbecue in suburban Virginia, with face-painting, karaoke, softball and carnival games.

We met folks from Nebraska and Michigan, and shared a picnic table with the family of Hyunsoo Kim of Seoul. According to her mom, Hyunsoo hosts a Korean television program that teaches English to children. Can you tell me how to get to Kimchi Court?

We met Vanya Shivashankar of Kansas, the 8-year-old sister of last year’s champion, Kavya Shivashankar, and the youngest (and cutest) speller in the competition.

Spellers are eligible until they complete eighth grade. Lily has another year left. Perhaps we’ll be back.

Until then, good night stars. Good night air.

Good night nostril hairs, everywhere. 

Staff Writer Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at:

[email protected]


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