Matt Scott stepped forward, the white stage light falling onto his face, as he prepared for what would be, he assured a packed theater of spectators, “a duel to the death.”
Around him, activity stilled. The Bee-Witches crinkled their long, strap-on noses. Allez Hop crowded together, ready to form a game plan. The JazzerBees glanced out to the crowd, jogging their feet up and down ever so discreetly. And the Type-O’s, as if sensing that victory was not too far away, looked at each other with wide, knowing eyes.
Ray Andrewsen readied the contestants. Then, he dropped the first punch.
This fateful duel, which had come down in a seventh round to the definition of a shoe made from one cut of leather, came as part of the third annual New Haven Reads (NHR) Community Spelling Bee, held Friday night on the University of New Haven Campus. Moderated by Scott and “Queen of the Hive” Ann Nyberg, the Bee is the biggest annual fundraiser for the nonprofit, which offers free literacy training to over 500 students a week with the help of 400 volunteer tutors. Working in one-on-one groups, the tutors serve some of the city’s lowest-income students, trying to level the largest educational gap in the country.
This year, three really was the magic number: The Bee raised over $25,000 for NHR, drawing over 300 attendees to cheer on 45 teams, or “swarms,” of three spellers each.
When asked why the event was so important to her, Kirsten Levinsohn, NHR’s executive director, explained that she saw the organization as battling a serious numbers problem: only 30 percent of third graders in New Haven are at reading level. Those who haven’t reached it by the third grade may never do so, leaving NHR fighting two big foes: an education system that is failing its students, and Father Time himself.
State Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, who doubles as an NHR tutor and spelling judge extraordinaire—he was stepping in for Nancy McNicol—put it in even simpler terms. “It makes people who aren’t going to be readers, readers,” he said.
“You can’t get ahead in life if you can’t read,” Nyberg added, explaining her enthusiasm for the event to the audience.
With names like Bee-Guilers, Spellabrate, Magic Spellerzzz, Queen Bees, Dictionfaries, and more, festively clad teams took the stage in six rounds, the winning group from each going on to a brutal seventh. Sealing their fate with a list of “hellacious words” and their definitions was Word Master Andrewsen, giving teams exactly 30 seconds to deliberate (/diˈlibəˌrāt/) before a squeak signified time for each swarm to communicate their conclusions to the emcees and a panel of judges seated before them.
And the path to victory was strewn with some fighting terms. Akropodion wiped out whole hives. Whippoorwill stumped swarms with its extra o. Ebola, defined by a loud, drawn-out scream, was not taken too kindly to by the audience. Kakistocracy stopped spellers in their honeyed tracks. Even kerfuffle proved too much for some.
One group that wasn’t so easily led astray? This year’s winners, the Type-O’s (get it?): Mindi Englart, Debbie Elkin, and Susan Papa. Dressed in matching tops with the slogan Lets Go Teame on the back, the three won on fyrd, a term for a group of soldiers in Anglo-Saxon England.
If those names sound familiar, it isn’t just because they’re born winners. All three women have been mugged in the most benevolent sense of the word: they are consummate typo-catchers for the Independent (winning coffee mugs for finding the most errors in stories). While their professions may shed some light onto their victory—Englart and Papa are educators, and Elkin works in Yale’s pathology department—I have another theory: our editorial flubs (can you find this one?) produce victors.
Their quest for seamless spelling, born out of a love for reading things closely and in their entirety, spoke to another mission of the Bee: to recruit more NHR tutors for an ever expanding wait list.
“It’s the best thing I do,” said Mary Mumper, NHR tutor and representative of Higher One CARES, the Bee’s platinum sponsor. “The child that you’re working with ... they’re there because they want to learn.”
“We’re thrilled. We have so much fun doing this every year,” Levinsohn added.
She paused, and looked our to the audience. “Thank you for helping New Haven read.”