Tension was high in the Lawrence Elementary School cafeteria Thursday morning. Eighteen kids from schools around Lodi Unified School District were seated onstage behind a semi-circle of tables. Placed before each student was a pencil, a pad of paper and a bright yellow card listing their name and school. They shifted in their seats and gnawed on fingernails, waiting nervously for spellmaster Gary Odell, vice principal at Lawrence, to begin the Lodi Area Spelling Bee.
"It's important to know you are all winners," Lawrence principal Carlos Villafana reminded the contestants. Each one had already won a spelling bee in their classroom and at their respective schools, but this was the big leagues. "Do you see yourselves as winners?"
The group offered a tentative thumbs up.
A panel of three judges was seated to the left of the stage armed with spelling lists and shiny red Merriam-Webster dictionaries. Scott McGregor, principal at Vinewood Elementary, Carol Rivas, principal at Needham Elementary, and Marianne Varni, principal at Live Oak and Tokay Colony Elementary schools, gave the final thumbs up or down after each spelling attempt.
Victoria Teresi, representing Woodbridge Elementary, took her time mulling over her first word.
"Glitz. G-L-I-T-Z. Glitz." Teresi shot a nervous look at the judges, which grew into a bright smile when she got a thumps up.
"Ethan, your word is 'avarice.' They were victims of their own avarice. Avarice," Odell pronounced in a clear, low tone.
Ethan Trevino, from Reese Elementary, scrawled briefly on his notepad before picking up the mic.
"Avarice. A-V-E-R-O-U-S. Avarice," he said, glancing at the judges hopefully.
"Sorry, that is not correct," said Odell.
After each round, those who missed their words joined their parents and school principals in the audience. By round five, only six spellers were left. Minutes later, it had dropped to two sixth graders.
Alyssa Fuentes, from Larson Elementary, was confident spelling 'impertinence,' 'incubator' and 'parallel.'
But there was no hesitation in Jack Gobel's voice as the Vinewood student spelled 'influence,' 'pioneer' and 'plague.'
In the end, it came down to the dictionary round.
Gobel wasn't prepared for "Grivet," a species of monkey native to Africa.
"I thought just spell 'rivet' and put a 'G' in front and hope it works," he said later. But it turned out to be the winning word when Fuentes lost her nerve on "grommet."
"Ugh," she expressed after the competition. "I will never misspell that word again."
She isn't too disappointed, however. Fuentes has won her school's spelling bee for three years running, and made it to the county competition last year.
Gobel, who earned fourth place in the Lodi Area Spelling Bee as a fourth-grader, will move on to the San Joaquin County Spelling Bee in December.
"I did pretty well here, but I don't know how I'll do there," he worried. "What if they use all dictionary words?"
Grobel took home a small trophy. All contestants recieved a spelling bee medal and a certificate of congratuations.
Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at firstname.lastname@example.org.