Caleb Turner survived three rounds that eliminated most of his competitors, only for the fourth-grader to misstep with G-R-I-S-S-L-E.
Nope, that nasty part of table meat is “gristle.” And with the ding of a judge’s bell, Caleb exited left to his family waiting for him in the audience: two grandparents, mom, dad and his teacher from St. John’s Episcopal School in Odessa.
“I got it wrong, too,” his mom Beti Turner told him. “But I’m proud of you! You did good.”
Only one person could win out of the 14 children competing in Odessa American’s 35th Annual Regional Spelling Bee and advance to the Scripps National Spelling Bee on May 28 in Washington, D.C. That meant 13 kids like Caleb would have to lose on stage and at the microphone.
In the end, it would be sixth-grader Kara Lehnert from Sweetwater Middle School who took the prize in the 11th round. Second was Tasneem Islam, a sixth-grader from Reagan Elementary School in Odessa, who stumbled on the word “syntax.”
Caleb took everything in stride, saying he thought he did well, explaining that “gristle” was a really hard word to spell, probably the hardest besides “easel.” For Caleb, there were none of the tears that some of the other kids couldn’t hold back. He decided to watch with his family for the winner, and if he were betting, he would have put his money on Gio Renacia, the sharp fellow nine-year-old from St. Mary’s Central Catholic School in Odessa. Gio took a cautious approach, asking for a definition and context for every word put to him — including “giraffe” — until “formidable” finally got him in the seventh round.
To win the bee, Kara needed to correctly spell two words in a row: First was “percolate.” And then with “O-B-S-T-I-N-A-T-E,” a word describing someone who stubbornly clings to opinion, Kara won.
Kara finished second in the Odessa American’s spelling bee last year. So this seemed to be her moment and plus, she spent all that time playing spelling games on the computer.
She let out a big and lasting grin that revealed her braces as the audience clapped. A judge asked her what most excited her about the trip to D.C. and she said, “It just seems like a really awesome spelling bee.”
During all the praise and trophy awards, Tasneem kept her composure and congratulated Kara. But later, as her dad held her large second-place trophy, some tears revealed the high emotion of youthful competition. She had, after all, made it through some of the toughest words, which had silent letters, such as “parfait” and “croquet.”
Kara later admitted there was no way she could have spelled “syntax.” Such is the reality of chance in a sport that plucks words from the dictionary, which Kara will now experience more intensely in the nation’s capital. There the first round will be written and the final round, difficult for any average adult, is televised. Last year’s championship word was “guetapens,” which means a trap and which even the spell check on this reporter’s computer doesn’t know how to spell.
The prize Saturday included travel expenses for Kara and one parent to D.C., plus tickets to a barbecue, a tour of the city and the awards banquet.
“Oh, we’re all gonna go,” said Kara’s dad, Dustin Lehnert.
Caleb’s pick, Gio, had already high-fived Kara on stage. But Gio approached Kara again after the award ceremony for another series of congratulations.
“Maybe you’ll win,” Gio told her.
Should she win the national championship, and the thousands of dollars in prize money that comes with it, Kara won’t be eligible for the regional competition anymore.
And, as Gio explained to everyone around, “If she goes to the championship, she’ll know all the words next year.”