WASHINGTON -- On the threshold of reaching the championship of the nation's most esteemed spelling contest, Maryland's surviving scholars tripped yesterday on an adjective and an art project.
Before getting stuck with sejant, an adjective describing an animal in a sitting position, Selena Roper of Annapolis, an eighth-grader at Severn River Middle, had aced oleic and bialy.
And Isaak Baker, who is in the eighth grade at Calvert Middle School in Calvert County, had no problem with everything from theologaster to lambdacism to melioidosis.
Which could be why, when the error bell rang after he goofed on makimono, a Japanese scroll with pictures or text, he almost couldn't believe it. He knew that one.
"He studied it," Isaak's dad, Ernie Haga, said with a shrug moments after his son's elimination. "He actually gave me one as a gift."
Isaak, who declared the bee "really nervewracking," said he confused the word with a similar one. After his mom, Jennifer Haga, mentioned that a lot of the bee is about luck, he added with more than a little frustration, "I got the luck, I just threw it away."
Yesterday's semifinal rounds lasted about three tense hours. With each tick of the clock, someone's hopes shattered or stretched - all because of a wayward "e" or a well-considered "t."
The live television broadcast, which included cameras on dollies swinging over the audience to within feet of spellers, ratcheted the anxiety-o-meter even higher.
The bee organizers had boosted the difficulty factor considerably since Wednesday, when the preliminary and quarterfinal rounds foiled Maryland's other contestants. Nearly every word was something the contestants - and certainly their parents - had never heard of. To figure them out required a mastery of root words or the ability to piece together an answer based on a definition or knowing a word's country of origin.
Most spellers asked for definitions and pronunciations and for words to be used in sentences over and over and over - some until their time ran out.
For every speller nearly frozen in fear and stalling for time was a Joseph Henares. When his turn came, the Connecticut boy strode to center stage and breathed a heavy, prolonged pheeeeeew - right into the mike. Joseph got the word schiavone. "Shee-a-von-ee?" he repeated tentatively. "Can I get a definition?" A judge explained it's a sword with a basket-like hilt. "Cooooool," Joseph replied, sending the audience into giggles.
Isaak, too, brought his share of comic relief.
When the judge presented him with his first word of the day, something that sounded a lot like "melly-o-doh-sis," Isaak's eyebrows flew up, and he gasped, "Melly what?" Yet he was able to close his eyes and work his way through it. Melioidosis.
Many of the spellers invented imaginary notepads and make-believe pens to figure out their words. They would stand onstage, using their index fingers to scrawl letters onto their palms or sometimes onto the back of the identification placards they wore around their necks. Sometimes they would scratch a word out and start over, as if the invisible mistake was somehow distracting.
Isaak and Selena didn't rely on pretend scratch paper. Maybe because it was the first time at the national bee for both. It was also their last time, because the contest doesn't allow anyone in grades higher than eighth.
But neither speller seemed hung up on missing a title chance. Though tears at the bee are hardly uncommon, Isaak and Selena didn't give up any. At least not in public.
Selena's dad, Bruce Roper, stood off to the side, taking pictures of people taking pictures of his daughter. Her serenity relieved him. He had worried that Selena would feel she let everyone down if she came home without a trophy.
"But look at that," he said, beaming at his straight-A student as she gave interviews. "She went to the plate, she gave it her best swing. That's a winner right there. And I know the difference."