COLCHESTER — For Meigan Clark of Middlebury, victory was “scurrilous” last Wednesday evening.
There was nothing “low” or “coarse” about the win, though — the sixth-grader at Mary Hogan Elementary edged past 41 other spellers to take the trophy in the Vermont state spelling bee. And she’ll go on to represent the state at the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., this June.
Wednesday’s spelling bee at Saint Michael’s College in Colchester lasted 31 rounds, making it the longest Vermont bee in recent memory. The last five contenders knew the 1,150-word list so well that they went seven rounds with no eliminations.
“Every single one of those kids could have won it,” said Meigan’s father, Gregor Clark. “I knew that this could go on until midnight, unless they stopped giving words off the list.
Once the officials began using another list that the competitors hadn’t used to prepare for the bee, the field cleared quickly. In the end, it came down to two competitors: Meigan and Samantha Storz of Kirby.
When Meigan got “scurrilous,” she wasn’t quite sure how it was spelled.
“I thought it had something to do with the word ‘scurry,’ and I asked for the definition. It had nothing to do with ‘scurry,’” she said. “But I figured I’d go with it anyway.”
And it was correct.
“I was ecstatic,” she said. “It took me half an hour to realize I’d won.”
“We’re still in a daze,” Gregor said on Thursday.
Meigan isn’t new to the competitive spelling world — this was the second year that she had competed on her school’s spelling team, which placed second in the statewide competition last November.
From there, Meigan decided to forge on ahead to the individual state spelling bee — which was a very different game. While the team bee is judged based on points accrued for correct spellings, the individual bee is run based on elimination. Three of Meigan’s teammates — Zara London-Southern, Orlando Whittcomb-Worden and Hadley Evans-Nash — headed up to Colchester with her last Wednesday to cheer her on.
“The kids have been great this year,” said Laura King, who teaches literacy at Mary Hogan School and coaches the spelling team. “They supported Meigan all the way.”
But making the jump from team competitions to the individual bee required even more hard work. In December, Meigan and her parents, Gaen Murphree and Gregor, launched into a regimen of studying for hours each day.
One technique Meigan developed was to stage spelling bees with her troll dolls, taking on spelling words for each doll in turn, and she also created chants to remember the spelling of some words, like “sassafras” — which turned out to be one of her words on Wednesday night.
And with her father, she delved further into the meanings and origins of the words.
“Some of (the words) open windows into other cultures,” said Gregor, a translator and writer of travel books for Lonely Planet. “My lifelong passion has been foreign languages, and it was really fun to get to share that enthusiasm with Maggie.”
Meigan also watched movies about spelling bees, like “Spellbound” and “Akeelah and the Bee.”
But when it came down to the competition on Wednesday night it was all about keeping her cool.
“When I’m spelling, one of my strategies is to ask a lot of questions,” said Clark. “It sort of helps me settle down.”
Her parents were watching closely for the moment when Meigan could finally relax on stage and begin to enjoy the words she was spelling. That moment took some time to come.
“All the kids looked like they were in their own quiet world of dread,” said Gregor of the beginning rounds of the competition.
He knew Meigan was starting to hit her stride when the announcer gave Meigan one of her favorite words, “hoomalimali.” She immediately perked up.
“She said, ‘Is that a Hawaiian word that means gentle flattery?’” said Gregor. “I was so happy to see that she was enjoying herself up there.”
Still, Meigan had one disappointment during the bee:
“No one got ‘Schadenfreude,’” she said.
THE NEXT LEVEL
For her victory, Meigan received a copy of the Webster’s International Dictionary, which is the word list for the national competition. She also got a Net Book computer, a trophy and an all-expenses paid trip to the Scripps National Spelling Bee Washington, D.C.
On Thursday, Meigan said she wasn’t sure how she’ll prepare for the national bee — but she was still enjoying the victory following the announcement at a school assembly Thursday morning.
In the coming months, Meigan will be preparing for the national bee, but Gregor said that it’s important that Meigan keep spelling for the right reasons.
“I don’t want her to feel that if it stops being fun, she should keep doing it,” he said.
On Thursday, King was also still beaming about Meigan’s victory.
“It takes a special set of parents and a special student,” said King. “But I just knew that if it was the right word, the right day, she had the ability (to win).”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected]