MUMS students sweep state spelling bee

COLCHESTER — Last Wednesday afternoon, 34 students from across the state gathered at St. Michael’s College to compete for a chance to represent Vermont at the Scripps National Spelling Bee. And although 34 students — ages 7-15 — were present at the state bee, only 33 schools were represented.
Two of this year’s spellers came from the same school: Middlebury Union Middle School (MUMS).
It marked the first time in Vermont spelling bee history that a school had more than one student in the competition. Those students were 2011 state champion Meigan Clark of Middlebury and Ronan Howlett of Cornwall, who both sat on the MUMS spelling team that won the state team championship last November.
After 15 rounds of spellbinding competition, the number of spellers began to “evanesce,” and two seventh-graders remained: Howlett and Clark. In the end, it was a close couple of rounds, but Howlett pulled off the win.
He’ll go on to represent the state at the national bee in Washington, D.C., in May.
The rules say a school can send only one student to the state bee. But Clark and Howlett were a clear exception.
To determine a school representative at the bee, Amy Pyfrom, MUMS special educator and spelling coach, held a school spelling bee. She ran through the entire list of around 1,000 basic words, and Clark and Howlett came out on top. Pyfrom then brought out the “challenge words,” which are particularly difficult words from a foreign language that have made it into English language dictionaries. Howlett, for example, was asked in last Monday’s competition at MUMS to spell “langlaufen,” the German word for cross country skiing (he spelled it correctly, of course).
But after moving through the entire 115-word list, the two spellers were still neck and neck.
“I didn’t know what else to do to make the determination,” said Pyfrom. So she called Bob Johnson, associate executive director at the Vermont Principals’ Association, which organizes the competition.
“I told him that in my opinion they had mastered the ‘spell it’ (general word) list and had remained tied after the challenge words,” said Pyfrom.
Johnson and Pyfrom found a Scripps rule that permitted co-champions if, after a certain number of words, two spellers remained tied.
“We had no other choice, to be honest,” said Johnson about allowing two representatives from the same school. “Scripps allows co-champions, and what had happened was that (MUMS) used the Scripps guide and they had gone through every word in the guide. We didn’t have anywhere else to go.
“We have never had two students from the same school before. It’s the first time in the seven or so years we’ve done the spelling bee that this has happened.”
Howlett and Clark weren’t the only Addison County students competing on Wednesday. Colin Dowd, a fifth-grader from Saint Mary’s Catholic Elementary School, was also there.
In the fourth round, he bowed out on the word “cravat,” which is a 17th century-style necktie.
Howlett and Clark spelled along as others began to drop off. In round 15, Williston Central School eighth-grader Summer Bishop tripped over “Italianate,” leaving Howlett and Clark to hash it out once and for all.
The two classmates were facing off yet again, but this time for a place in the national competition. Clark, who correctly spelled all of her words in the first round at the national spelling bee last year but did not qualify for the semi-finals, said it was anybody’s bee to win.
“I was sort of surprised that it was just the two of us at the very end because there were so many spellers,” she said in an interview Thursday. “I didn’t know what would happen.”
Howlett modestly indicated that he thought Clark had the advantage.
“I was thinking Meigan would probably win because she won last year and she was preparing all day,” he said.
But in round 17, Clark was stymied by the word “limburger,” the soft, pungent cheese from Germany. She said she first thought to spell it with a “u” after the “b,” but instead made a last-minute decision to spell it with an “e.”
Clark was out, but in order to win, Howlett still had one more word to spell.
Fortunately for Howlett, he was pitched a lob: “quantitative.” The math and science whiz didn’t hesitate — “q-u-a-n-t-i-t-a-t-i-v-e” — and won in his first appearance at the state bee.
“That’s kind of an easy word for being the last word,” Howlett said on Thursday morning, still incredulous. “And we’re doing qualitative and quantitative analysis in science right now.”
For Clark, the experience reinforced a lesson that she began considering after last year’s national spelling bee — trust your instincts.
“Last year, on the written test (at the national bee), for half of the words I got wrong my first instinct was right. But I changed the words,” she said. “I think I should start trusting my instincts more.”
Howlett — who is also the number-one seed for southwest Vermont heading into MathCounts, a state math competition that will be held in Randolph this weekend — will head to Washington, D.C., at the end of May to represent Vermont in the national spelling bee.
“I think Ronan will represent us well,” said Johnson of the VPA.
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected]

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