Elizabeth Wright is giddy with anticipation. At 32, she's already earned a bachelor's degree in journalism and a master's in social work and worked her way up to become director of Tennesseans for Fair Taxation. But what's preoccupying far too many of her waking hours and invading her sleep—leading her to forgo typical recreation to leaf through the dictionary and look for weird new words—is the prospect of... an adult spelling bee.
"It's ridiculous how excited I am," she says. "It's a funny little point of pride for me. I've always felt like I was a good speller. I don't have any awards, as a kid I was never able to participate in bees, but it's a quirky little thing I enjoy."
This contest, the first of its sort in the area, will include some "adult content" vocabulary and take place at Pilot Light, which is much, much better known as a haven for alternative musicians. Wright, for example, considers Pilot Light "kind of" her home bar, and she's performed there with her garage-rock band Dirty Knees (and Fistful of Crows, too, though they're currently on hiatus). The bee is the brainchild of Liz Albertson, another Pilot Light regular who's 31 and an urban planner for the Knoxville/Knox County Metropolitan Planning Commission—and a dyed-in-the-wool spelling aficionado, though she never went much further in competition than classroom winner in the school spelling bee.
"I remember one year a kid in a neighboring school went on to the national bee and I was really jealous and wished I had studied more," Albertson says. "I have been really interested in spelling bees since '96 or '97, when I saw that home-schooled girl [Rebecca Sealfon] who won the national school bee on television. Her performance was completely awkward and fascinating. I have wanted to participate in an adult spelling bee since I saw the movie Spellbound. Then recently I found out people in larger cities were hosting bees at bars. I'm probably not going to New York any time soon, so I thought I should probably just throw one here."
Because she's not sure if 10 or 30 people will show up and pay the $5 entry fee (which includes a free PBR for each contestant), Albertson has not established the precise format of her bee yet, but she says a lot of buzz is building, particularly among young musicians, like Mountains of Moss's Adam Ewing, who also works the letterpress at Yee-Haw Industries.
Wright, who's already studied a few hours and plans more, is ready. "I'm feeling pretty confident, pretty cocky," she says. "Of course, I could get too cocky and end up going out in the first round."
Who knew these cool people would be drawn to such a traditionally straitlaced—okay, nerdy; there, it's been said—activity? To Albertson, an occasional band member who used to freestyle rap around town as part of Trapper Keeper, it makes sense. "Just because we're ‘hip' doesn't mean we're not nerds at heart," says Albertson. "Lots of folks locally who are completely involved in the local music scene are bookworms. We were quasi-outcasts in high school and probably had to dumb ourselves down to be quasi-accepted. Now we're in our mid- to late-20s and 30s and have more confidence. We can kind of care less so we're going to go up on stage and spell in front of everybody."
There is another side of adult spelling in Knoxville, and he's named Scott Firebaugh. Originally from Wooster, Ohio, the wiry, bespectacled 55-year-old taught high school in Kokomo, Ind., for 30 years and has been in a bar just twice in his life—for class reunions, not beers. He's an old-school speller; he's compiled a list of around 8,000 words, and practices every day, reviewing words while he runs three miles every day, learning new ones when he makes long drives.
"I'll glance at a word and then look away to try to memorize it," he says. "I'm still being safe. I try to use scraps of time that might otherwise be wasted."
Firebaugh is brilliantly successful among adult spellers, most notably as the 2009 second-place finisher in the AARP national bee held in Cheyenne, Wyo. But there's a catch to his Knoxville connection: Most all his adult spelling experience comes from outside the city limits. Up until 2006 he and his family lived in Indiana, where local spelling leagues were commonplace and he spelled against dozens of other committed teams to be on the winning adult bee team at local contests for five years running.
Here, the Grace Christian Academy math and science teacher has just been able to compete in a mini-bee fund-raiser once at Pellissippi State Community College. "They gave us a list to study ahead of time," he says. "I couldn't believe it!"
And yet, something about Firebaugh's spirit is kindred to the adult spellers just lifting off at Pilot Light, like the way he remembers how his interest in spelling was piqued as if it were just last week, not 40-odd years ago.
"I was in third grade, my brother was in eighth grade, and he won the spelling bee," he says. "I was so ecstatic; we'd never won anything before. He was a sharp and personable guy, and I felt like everything he did I had to do." Firebaugh started memorizing words and ended up winning the Wooster Township bee and placing seventh in the county bee in 1966. In 1967, his eighth-grade year, he cut loose, coming in second in the county bee, first in the Akron regional bee, and 16th in the national spelling bee. All these contest memories are still fresh: he can tell you the word he went out on, or, in some cases, the lucky breaks that came his way. "At that regional bee, I really dodged the bullet. I didn't know the words before and after, but I knew my word."
And he's fascinated, in a reveling, enjoyment-filled sort of way, with words and their spelling and the patterns they make. "I noticed at the national spelling bee one third of the competitors had listed math as their favorite subject," he says. "The math helps; in math you study patterns. In spelling, you need to recognize patterns of words. I notice certain words fit certain patterns and I group them and study them that way. Like there are just four words that end in nha; one of them is piranha. I memorized that group."
The most notable similarity between Firebaugh and the much less experienced spellers in Knoxville is simply that he clearly considers himself, and all of them, part of the same brotherhood, fraternal order, or congregation, if you will. Spellers follow other spellers, in the third grade desk one over or on ESPN, with rapt attention. Firebaugh studies his spelling compatriots just as carefully as any dictionary, enjoying their success, trying to learn from their lists and their mistakes. He did once meet Rebecca Sealfon, who he first became aware of because she was competing at the national spelling bee the same year—1996—as his daughter Sara. In a typical speller-folk moment, Sealfon asked him what word he went out on when he was in the '67 national spelling bee. He remembered: "pasigraphy." In turn, he recounts with awe, she told him exactly which years of past national bees had contained the word "pasigraphy."
Sealfon's bio is in a guide Firebaugh stores in a copy paper box in the garage, along with press clips detailing the many spelling exploits of his family—daughters Sara, Stephanie, and Stacia, and son Stephen. The box also contains PR booklets with bios and tales of spellers who competed against his daughters at nationals, the team of surgeons that excelled in literacy fund-raisers back in Kokomo, and even an old news story about the national scholastic contestant who won in 1989—but only after missing that bugaboo word, "pasigraphy."
Where will they go from here, these openly nerdy competitors who have kindred spirits and just love to spell?
Albertson would like to see the Pilot Light contest continue on. "If it's fun, we may start doing it on a bi-monthly basis."
Firebaugh is completely focused on bettering last year's second place finish at the "three-strikes" national AARP adult bee this summer, with an extra goal on top: "Only one person has done this in the history of the competition," he says. "I want to go and spell and not miss any words."