On Saturday, Nov. 16, more than 14,000 people filled Mackey Arena to watch Purdue’s basketball team demolish Chicago State by 44 points. It was never a contest. Those wanting to see an exhilarating competition were across campus at Loeb Playhouse, where a capacity 1,011 fans watched 30 teams compete in the finals for the Indiana Association of School Principals Academic Spell Bowl.
This intense academic arena was nothing new to the St. Roch Rockets and their coach, Mary Ann Chamberlin. Clad in matching shirts, the St. Roch team was game for the task with spellers from sixth, seventh and eighth grades, many of them multi-year veterans going back to their time on the elementary spelling circuit. Chamberlin, acknowledged by her peers as a past academic coach of the year, began practicing before the school year even commenced. When asked, she noted she prefers team practice to competitions. “We have fun and I get to interact with the kids.” That said though, “The most satisfying aspect is seeing the spellers’ hard work pay off, the smiles of relief and satisfaction when they come from spelling and have won a perfect speller ribbon. I love seeing a student who has maybe started off not really doing well get into the spirit, study hard and do really well at the competitions.”
The tension of the competitions isn’t isolated to the students. Chamberlin noted, “They are quite stressful for me, so I mostly enjoy them when I know the hard work has paid off and the kids reap the benefits of their efforts.”
The finals are built for dramatic tension. Separated into four classes by enrollment, teams send eight spellers to the stage, one at a time. Flanked by a proctor, each speller sits at a table armed only with a pencil and months of preparation knowing that the most important eight words in their life will come from the haze of the 1,600-word list studied for this year’s competition. The announcer declares the word, uses it in a sentence and gives the vital instruction: “Begin.”
The audience is spellbound. Sixty spellers and proctors crowd the stage, making it nearly impossible to see, let alone decode, the body language of your team’s competitor sitting with their back to the crowd. A breathless apprehension fills the theater, then murmurs cease at the sound of ding! and the command, “Pencils up.” The correct spelling is revealed and in what often seems the most anxious fractions of a second, the successful spellers raise their hands. The anticipation is absolutely akin to a buzzer-beater in basketball or a last-second field goal with one exception. It happens 72 times. The boisterous adulations of the crowd prove this isn’t your grandfather’s spelling bee.
After this year’s culminating word – the Greek behemoth xeroderma pigmentosum, a word so feared that it sent an audible gasp through the theater – Chamberlin’s Rockets had successfully cleared 71 of the 72 hurdles to bring home their seventh state title in the past eight years. This success is a link in a chain stretching back to before some of this year’s spellers were even born. The common thread in this success: Chamberlin.
“I can’t say enough about the kids who do this,” she said. “They put in so many hours, not only at school but on their own time to learn the words. I can’t spell for them. They work so hard to make success possible. They are amazing!”