New Haven Reads Casts Its Spell

 Wordmaster Tom Zingarelli hands out prizes to The Stellar Spellers, as well as several other recepients. Lucy Gellman photos. 

Wordmaster Tom Zingarelli hands out prizes to The Stellar Spellers, as well as several other recepients. Lucy Gellman photos. 

It was getting tense on the spelling bee stage. Already, the night had seen a barrage of hard words: tantivy, onyxis, isophychal. Now, quokka was up. The Stellar Spellers huddled in, lights flashing beneath Melissa Winders’ blue and white skirt, printed with the solar system. If they could get this one, they’d have it.   

The seconds ticked down from a large digital clock at the back of the auditorium. Five. Four. Three. Two. One. Contestants held up their whiteboards. Everything from koakka  to quoqqa peppered the stage. Only the Steller Spellers had nailed the word.  

A wild cheer went up from the crowd. It was an upset, unseating not one but two teams from the Yale Department of Linguistics from a win. With their knowledge of a cat-sized marsupial, the Stellar Spellers had taken the 2017 title.  

Such was the nail-bitingly good finale of the sixth annual New Haven Reads Spelling Bee, held Friday night at the Yale School of Management. With 42 spellerific teams of three spellers each participating, the costume-packed evening doubled as a fundraiser of the organization, bringing in a total of $30,000. That number included a dollar-for-dollar match by the organization’s board. 

Started 15 years ago by the late Christine Alexander, New Haven Reads is a literacy-focused nonprofit with four site locations across the city. Each year, over 500 students come through its doors for free after-school and Saturday tutoring in phonics and reading. As part of the organization’s mission, students are able to leave those sessions with used books each week, and brand new books three times a year. Last year, the organization distributed nearly 130,000 books. 

“What I want you to appreciate is that we’re talking about real children with real hopes and dreams,” said New Haven Reads Director Kirsten Levinsohn Friday. She recalled the story of a student she called “Bonnie,”  who has been at New Haven Reads for seven years. From a struggling reader, Bonnie has become a speed-reading, test-acing senior in high school, working on her college applications. Her goal: To become a lawyer, one law book at a time. 

Levinsohn said she beleives that Bonnie, and many students like her, will reach that goal thanks in part to New Haven Reads. But the organization is going into a year where funding remains uncertain, due to an embattled state budget. In the latest proposed budget, New Haven Reads stands to lose some or all of its state funding, a deficit that totals about $53,000 for the organization. That's seven percent of its annual budget. 

“We are determined to fill that hole … not to have to stop tutoring some of our kids,” she said. 

Friday night, that was cause for attendees to donate liberally, some dropping off cash at the door while others, in teams, arrived with sponsorship behind them. Taking the stage a little past 7 p.m., six “swarms” of seven teams each squirmed through words like soporific, gadarene, bourgeoisie and napiform, hoisting their whiteboards high in the air. 

Almost all of them came transformed, from the cat-masked “Whiskered Wordsmiths" to a guitar- and wig-sporting “Bee Bee Top” and Game of Thrones-themed “Winter is Spelling.” They included 2016 winner and crowd favorite “Librarians … From Hell!,” a group of three librarians from the Hamden Public Library who returned in full zombie makeup, declaring it their intention to take back the spelling crown.

The air grew tense and electric with the possibility of a second win. From a long judges’ table, broadcaster Ray Andrewson, West River revitalizer and retired cop Stacy Spell, State Sen. Gary Winfield and Yale Police Chief Ronnell Higgins scrutinized each swarm, calling out which words had been misspelled, drawing both groans and cheers from the audience.

Watching from the audience (she later competed during a high-school-only swarm), Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School senior Athena Singh watched with nervous giggles, offering her best guess at each word with teammates Ana Lujan and Rylan Mayo. After a guidance counselor had talked to her class about the opportunity to compete in the Spelling Bee, she said, she jumped on it. 

 Athena Singh, Ana Lujan and Rylan Mayo — senior, junior and sophomore at Co-Op High School. The three all credit reading with their academic acheivements. 

Athena Singh, Ana Lujan and Rylan Mayo — senior, junior and sophomore at Co-Op High School. The three all credit reading with their academic acheivements. 

“Reading has impacted everything I do,” she said, clapping as “Much Ado About Reading” won the second swarm of the night. “It helped me think about my college major, and I use it in all my presentations at school.” After this year, she said she intends to study English literature. While the team didn’t advance from their swarm to the final round—that honor went to the Squash Haven Spellers—all three members said they were there to stand behind the organization, especially as it faced a lean year ahead.  

“Yeah, reading helped me become a better writer,” added Lujan. “At first, my mom would force me to read—but now I love it.” She said she hopes that all kids in New Haven can have that same opportunity. 

Back on stage, the Stellar Spellers were working through that same mission—and channeling the long-lost high-school vocabulary lessons that might save them. Having sailed through the sixth swarm to unseat the Librarians … From Hell!, they’d returned for a final round, ready for whatever words might come their way. 

Spell - 21.jpg

In the back of the auditorium, a member of the Yale Linguistics Department taped the round on his iPhone, providing commentary as the words coasted across the group. As teams dwindled on the stage, it became a sort of showdown: three friends, all bibliophiles, from Yale's development office versus the academics who do words for a living. 

Emcee Keith Kountz announced the next word: Quokka. A marsupial no larger than a cat, who has won hearts worldwide with viral videos of eating bamboo.   

Spellers Melissa Winders, Siobhan Quinlan and Susan Sheehan Daniells huddled in. Their heads came close together, writing each letter carefully. As the clock reached zero in the back of the room, Winders held up the whiteboard. 

“We … we have a winner!” Kountz cried. 

The Stellar Spellars came forward for their trophy and medals. “It’s just a nice thing for the community,” Winders said.