ROCHESTER — Dong! Dong! Dong!
The bells of St. Boniface Church rang out across the South Wedge neighborhood, letting everyone know it was 7 p.m., Feb. 7 — the slated start time of the 2005 Catholic Schools Week Invitational Spelling Bee.
Almost 200 people had filled the St. Boniface School auditorium to watch 27 fifth- or sixth-graders from an equal number of Catholic schools spell their way to glory. All of the schools were located in Monroe County, save one, St. Mary’s in Canandaigua, which is located in Ontario County.
One mother said that her son was “nervous as heck” because he was an alternate who found out earlier that day that he had to compete. Moments later, the students processed into the auditorium, walked up steps to the stage and took their places in a semi-circle of folding chairs.
Standing before the crowd, Sister Mary Smith, SSND, principal of St. Boniface, noted how much she admired the children, acknowledging that she herself wasn’t a stellar speller. She urged the children to take a deep breath to relax. Few seemed to comply — they seemed too tense and ready to spell. Someone then suggested a collective prayer, which seemed to work better to calm down the whole group, spectators and spellers alike.
The students introduced themselves to the audience. One by one they came to the microphone, some reaching up to pull it down, others towering over it. The students first engaged in a practice round, each successfully spelling practice words.
Then the competition began. Each word was read to a student by Patricia Jones, assistant superintendent for the WIN program of the Diocese of Rochester, which oversees schools subsidized by the Wegman Inner City Voucher program. The first word, “bicycles,” was successfully spelled by the first contestant. If a child misspelled a word, he or she had to drop out of the competition, and several children were eliminated in the first round.
By the third round, 16 children remained. It seemed those who spelled slowly were able to hang on in the competition, taking time not to stumble over a letter. Round four saw 11 children compete; round five saw nine. By round six the competition was whittled down to five contestants. Round seven saw one little girl stumble over “referred,” a heartbreaking moment since she had successfully spelled far more difficult words beforehand.
“Remedies,” “sloppily,” “attorneys” … the words were coming faster now as the children competed in smaller groups. Finally, it was down to Sean Wurster, a sixth-grader at St. Pius Tenth School in Chili, and Stephanie Antonio, a sixth-grader at St. Helen’s School in Gates. The two spellers battled through five rounds, with Stephanie finally taking top honors by correctly spelling “mythology.”
At last it was over. Stephanie and Sean both received trophies for their efforts, as well as $50 U.S. savings bonds from the St. Boniface Men’s Club. Every competitor received a certificate noting their participation in the bee.
Afterwards, tears flowed from the eyes of some of the losing students, who were consoled by their parents. Elliot Williams, a sixth-grader at Nazareth Middle School in Rochester, noted that while he didn’t win, his participation was a victory in and of itself.
“Last year I tried out, but I didn’t get in,” he said. “This year, I was overjoyed. It felt good.” His teacher, Stacy Olmo, noted that Elliot was an editor for the school’s yearbook. “He’s a very strong writer,” she added.
Tashae Williams, a fifth-grader at St. Monica’s in Rochester, also said she liked competing.
“I just like a challenge,” she said.
Jadon O’Donnell, a sixth-grader at St. Mary’s in Canandaigua, came in third. He and his parents, Marcia and Mike O’Donnell, said they practiced morning and night in the weeks before the bee. Participating came naturally, Jadon noted.
“I enjoy school, and I’m pretty good at spelling, I guess,” Jadon said.
Sean Wurster, the second-place speller, said the competition’s length was a challenge.
“It was just hard being up there for so long,” he said.
When asked how he kept his poise, he added: “I just took a deep breath and hoped for the best.”
The winner, Stephanie Antonio, said she worked hard with her mother, Linda, and her brother, Brian, to practice for the bee.
“We practiced even at Chuck E. Cheese’s,” Brian said, referring to a children’s-oriented restaurant/arcade in Henrietta.
Stephanie’s mother, who was beaming with pride, was asked if Stephanie might consider competing at other spelling bees. She noted that Stephanie may have had enough.
“She’d kill me if we had to do another,” Linda said with a laugh.