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A Farrago of Smart Kids in an Exciting Milieu

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Washington--One contestant was an Amish girl from an Ohio farm whose favorite books are adventure stories. Another, a Cambodian refugee, learned English from television and from watching people talk. A third wore leopard-spotted sunglasses on stage, and a fourth impressed a fellow competitor by telling him he had a l960 Ernie Banks baseball card in his hotel room.

In the end, it was Balu Natarajan, 13 years old, of Bolingbrook, Ill., who took home the first-place prizes in the 58th annual Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee, held here June 5 and 6. But for many of the l67 other participants, the contest had its own rewards.

"By the time we see each other next, we'll be walking with canes," said Contestant No. 10, Maria Carmina Luzon Prado, 14, of Jersey City, N.J., to Contestant No. 81, Belinda Plowell, an 8th grader from Nashua, N.H., as they excitedly exchanged addresses. Both had been bumped from competition during earlier rounds, Maria Carmina that morning and Belinda on the previous day.

Asked if she was disappointed at not winning, Maria Carmina responded, "Yes, but in a way I feel kind of happy, because at least I got a chance to come here."

Prizes for Everyone

An 8th grader at St. Ann's School in Jersey City, Maria Carmina misspelled the word "centaur," a mistake she found particularly disturbing because, she said, "I enjoy Greek mythology."

Belinda, who said she would be coaching her younger sister Tracee, 11, to represent the family in future national bees, waxed philosophical on the subject of victory and defeat: "It's like my teacher told us. It's just a chance of winning or losing. Somebody has to win, and somebody has to lose."

Besides, she suggested pragmatically, the $50 awarded to each contest participant by Scripps Howard was an acceptable consolation prize.

"I'll take that," she said, adding that she intended to spend part of her winnings on a shopping spree and use the rest to throw a party when she returned home.

Spelling and Reading

This year's winner shares with many of his fellow contestants a love of reading and an ability to spend long hours memorizing strings of obscure words, Balu disclosed after his victory.

In spelling, Balu explained, he "tries to see what the word looks like" in his mind. The bee's pronouncer, Alex Cameron, suggested that this, too, is a habit common to top spellers.

"The really good spellers are constant readers, so that they have a sense of words--almost the literal shape of words," Mr. Cameron said during a break between rounds.

'People Against Words'

An associate professor of English at the University of Dayton in Ohio, Mr. Cameron described the spelling bee as a contest that pits "people against words." As a key mediator in this struggle, Mr. Cameron offered the sometimes-agonized spellers whatever help he could, within the boundaries of the contest's rules.

"Procacious," he intoned as one young speller stood at the microphone toward the end of the first day of competition. The girl looked blank.

"Can you give me the definition?" she asked hesitantly.

"Impudent," he responded quickly, and then, as she remained silent, "It's just another word for impudent."

Still no sound from the speller, who looked as mystified as before.

"You know," he tried again. "Snotty."

Gag Lines

Even in the midst of the high anxiety of competition, several contestants took advantage of their center-stage position to milk the audience for laughs.

"Are you sure you didn't skip a word?" asked Cathy Yvonne Caswell, an 8th grader from Cleveland Heights, Ohio, when presented with the word "phoneme" in round six of the event. When she spelled it correctly, she breathed a surprised, thankful, and clearly audible "Oh, my God!" into the microphone, to the delight of the crowd.

Speller's Luck

As in many contests, skill may not have been the only factor contributing to the success of this year's spelling-bee champ--at least according to the runner-up, Kate Lingley, 13, of Dover-Foxcroft, Me.

Kate misspelled "farrago," and then watched as her rival, Balu, captured the top prize by correctly spelling that word and the follow-up word, "milieu."

"I had planned on winning," she said afterwards, admitting that at first she was "pretty upset at myself" for coming in second. But she suggested that, in any duel between expert spellers, the outcome may have as much to do with luck as with spelling aptitude.

"If he had gotten 'farrago' first," she speculated darkly, "then he might have missed it."

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