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Spelling Bees Aren't Just For Kids Anymore

2013's Great Grown Up Spelling Bee
Kalamazoo Public Library

Spelling bees used to be about nervous kids in their Sunday best, dusting off words no longer a part of common speech. But Wednesday night you can experience a very different kind of bee. This one isn’t for kids and it’s all about the fun.

Friendship Village seniors and their kazoos at 2013's Great Grown-Up Spelling Bee
Credit Kalamazoo Public Library
Friendship Village seniors and their kazoos at 2013's Great Grown-Up Spelling Bee

At this bee, judges aim rapid-fire words at quick-thinking adults rooted-on by cheerleaders. Some are dressed in hunting camouflage, others are blow into kazoos. And a few sing the Sesame Street theme song while dancing with Cookie Monster and Elmo dolls.

That was the scene at the Kalamazoo Public Library’s Great Grown-Up Spelling Bee last year. Now in its 14th year, the spelling bee has become a sometimes raucous, always eccentric event many look forward to for months, says Farrell Howe. Howe is the marketing and communications manager at the library and was a participant in last year’s bee.

“It’s definitely one of the most popular events we have here at KPL," says Howe. "People look forward to it every year. It’s not something we really have to go out of our way to publicize. People love it, look forward to it. Months out, they call and say, ‘When is the bee this year?’”

This year, there are 14 teams comprised of eight participants each – two spellers and six cheerleaders. Spellers compete for first, second and third place while cheerleaders and teams battle for other recognitions such as “Most Creative Cheer,” “Best Costumes,” and the much sought-after “People’s Choice Award,” voted on by the audience.  

A team of women from Friendship Village Senior Living Community won that award last year. The audience was taken by their pitch perfect performance of a song about the importance of reading, complete with kazoos.

There are two, one-minute rounds of spelling. A team’s spellers try to spell as many words correctly as possible in a set. There is no mulling over a word. A judge speaks the words fast and furious, so it’s better at least try to spell them than waste time. That can lead to some funny frustrations, Howe says.

“People will make a joke out of it. If they can’t spell a word they’ll be like, ‘N-O.’ Pass,” Howe explains.

“You can get so many different ranges of questions. It’s very random. They don’t start with a small, ‘Cats’ and then go to “Supercalifragal…’ It varies. Your partner may get ‘Cat’ and you may get some terrible word you’ve never heard of.”

There’s more to the bee than silly costumes and flabbergasted spellers fumbling over words, however. Mikki Henry works on the library’s Teen Room and is an organizer for this year’s bee. She says the bee isn’t just about fun and flair. It also benefits a good cause, funding a program called “Ready to Read.”

“The spelling bee raises money for books that we hand out to kids in the community through partners like pediatricians offices and WIC," says Henry. "There’s a maternal health program that we’ve started partnering with. So basically agencies in the community that work with children ages zero to 5.”

The bee raised $20,000 for the program in 2013. Organizers say they’re aiming for the same amount this year and have nearly reached their goal.

Organizers of the bee try to make the focus of the entire event on the importance of literacy and reading. Even amid the free-for-all fun frenzy that ensues between spelling rounds, the lyrics of songs, costumes and props all go back to the theme of reading and using words to expand one’s mind. It’s a message for all, regardless of age, Howe says.

“You know, it’s important to always keep learning. And it’s an environment like that that reminds you you’re not done,” she says.  

The Great Grown-Up Spelling Bee will take place Wednesday night at Western Michigan University’s Bernhard Center.