Adults out there, be honest: Could you correctly spell “grandiloquent” or “magnanimity” on the first try if somebody had just asked you to? For that matter, when was the last time you even heard these words used?
If they rate as stumpers in your book of knowledge, imagine how the middle-school students must have felt who gathered at Rochester’s McQuaid Jesuit High School on Feb. 10. Only one young person, Christian Lambert of Elmira, was up to the task of spelling those two words correctly. By doing so, he clinched first place in the Catholic Middle School Spelling Bee.
Christian’s victory enabled him to successfully defend his championship from last year. That’s quite a feat, considering the bee was open to all Catholic schools in the Rochester Diocese with enrollments in grades 7-8. Christian held off nearly 20 challengers — including none other than his twin sister, Catherine, who finished third. The 14-year-olds are eighth-graders at Elmira’s Holy Family Junior High School and parishioners at Our Lady of Lourdes.
Christian and Catherine had qualified for the diocesan event by claiming the top two spots in a preliminary bee held at Holy Family in December. On that day, Catherine came out on top — she spelled the word “prosaic” to clinch the victory — with her brother finishing as runner-up.
Regarding his win at the diocesan bee, Christian said his experience from a year ago came in handy.
“I knew what to expect. You could tell a lot of the others were pretty unsure,” he said. He admitted that despite winning in 2004, he was not so cool-headed back then. “No way,” he recalled. “When people say butterflies in your stomach, they really mean it.”
Meanwhile, Catherine — who goes by the nickname “Cat” — used the term “nerve-wracking” more than once to describe her feelings during spelling bees. The recent competition at McQuaid, her first diocesan bee, was particularly butterfly-inducing.
“There was a lot of pressure. At school, I just sort of knew everybody who was there. At the diocesan one, you didn’t know anybody,” Catherine explained. The pressure intensified as she and her brother continued to advance: “My heart would be beating really fast. The auditorium was very small and it was pretty hot in there.”
Catherine was quite content with finishing third in Rochester, saying, “I was happy that I got that far.” She held no jealously toward her first-place brother after being eliminated. “I knew he’d probably win. If he didn’t win I probably would have been mad at him, because I knew he could,” she said.
Neither did Christian hold any sibling rivalry toward Catherine that day — “she was kind of like a teammate” — or when they were the only two competitors left at the Holy Family bee. “I was glad it was her,” he said.
Christian and Catherine had never taken part in spelling bees before entering Holy Family. But in a way, they’d been preparing for such events for many years based on their long-standing affinity for book-reading.
“We didn’t really study (for the bees) that much. I got a lot of the words from reading,” Catherine said.
“We’ve been reading books since we were 3 or 4 years old,” Christian added, remarking that this formation is vital at crunch time during spelling bees: “You really get familiar with what the words look like. When the announcer says it, it forms in your mind and you won’t have any doubt about it.”
Elizabeth Berliner, principal of Holy Family Junior High, holds high praise for the twins, saying they represent Holy Family well with their personal traits as well as their spelling skills.
“They’re just extraordinary kids in every aspect. They’re into lots of extracurricular activities, and both of them are very service-oriented,” Berliner commented. “They’re not just into their studies only.”