A tense but exhilarating back-and-forth determined the 2017 winner of the annual Washington Informer Spelling Bee.
The District’s brightest and sharpest spellers took the stage Saturday, March 11, for the NBC4-hosted bee, as 29 students from public, private, parochial and home schools competed for the District spelling championship in front of family and friends.
In the final rounds, three students stood alone: Margaret Isacson, a seventh-grader at Oyster-Adams Bilingual School, Robert Foster, a fifth-grader at National Presbyterian School, and Jude Martin, a fifth-grader at Brent Elementary.
By this time, it was clear that the Scripps word list no longer challenged the students. So judges turned to the dictionary to help determine the winner.
To her surprise, 12-year-old Margaret correctly spelled the winning word, “totipalmate,” making her the 35th District spelling bee champion and qualifying her for the Scripps National Spelling Bee, which begins May 28.
“I won a spelling bee in the third grade that asked for both English and Spanish words, which was pretty hard. So I realized then that I was pretty good at spelling,” Margaret recalled.
Her dad, Adam Isacson, was her primary spelling coach, and her mom, Catherine Gelb, helped with French words.
“All my friends were really supportive when I told them about my spelling,” she said. “They even quizzed me on my words.”
During the competition, Margaret’s father swelled with pride as she effortlessly spelled Spanish words such as “duena.” He attributed her ease with the language to her bilingual school.
“I was pretty sure I would get a participation trophy,” Margaret laughed. “I didn’t study as much as I did in fifth grade, but I wasn’t as stressed out as much either, and I think that’s what helped.”
The judges echoed this same advice to contestants on the morning of the competition: “Be confident!”
The five judges all have served as spelling bee coordinators in the past 20 years. They decided to rejoin the production “for the love of the bee.”
All describe a passion for encouraging bright, young students to spell.
“I really do it because of the fun,” said Elizabeth Primas, one of the judges. “One of the things I really love is that the students show good sportsmanship. Even when they don’t win, they cheer on those who did.”
Pronouncer Doris McMillon also expressed pride in the contestants.
“It just gives me great joy to see these kids because I know that they’re reading,” she said. “I am so committed to what these kids are doing and making sure that they have success.”
In an interview with NBC4, Margaret described her win as “totally weird,” adding that she had never heard the word “totipalmate” before.
Ultimately relying on her instincts, once she heard the word correctly, she swiftly spelled it for the judges.
She walked away with four tickets anywhere Southwest Airlines flies, a check for $1,000 courtesy of Jack H. Olender and Associates, Washington Nationals tickets and an invitation to be honored at home plate alongside the second- and third-place winners, Jude Martin and Robert Foster.
The two top runners-up received trophies, home plate honor at the April 15 Nationals game, Giant Food gift cards and $500 and $300 checks, respectively, from Olender and Associates.
Like Margaret, Jude Martin and Robert Foster were also in unfamiliar territory by the end.
“The Scripps website taught Jude common spellings and word forms in certain languages, which I think helped him with those dictionary words in the last rounds,” said Jude’s father, Andrew Martin.
A deeper dive into studying the words’ languages of origin may prove necessary for the National Spelling Bee, which does not provide a suggested word list to memorize.
“I’ve already started studying. They only use the dictionary, so you just have to know everything,” Margaret said.
As for Jude and Robert, both fully intend to spell again next year.
“I’ve always wanted to see the National Spelling Bee in person,” Robert said. “This year I’m going to take the day off from school and see the spellers at the Gaylord.”
Jude said that he also is motivated to make it to the national competition, but took pride in his impressive finish this year.
“I’m kind of amazed, because a lot of kids from the District take part in Scripps, and I was the second-best one this year,” he said.
Thanks to citywide bee coordinator Joanna Benjamin, students can definitively count themselves among the best spellers in the district.
“Before Joanna started in 2015, only 54 schools were registered with Scripps,” said Ron Burke, The Informer’s director of advertising and marketing. “Now 85 out of around 110 elementary and middle schools registered for the spelling bee this school year.”
Nearly 80 percent of D.C. public, private, charter, parochial and homeschooled students competed in the hopes to qualify for the District bee. The participants who made it to the March 11 competition received participation trophies, Nationals tickets and Giant gift cards as reward for their success and diligent preparation.
“You all had to be winners many times over just to get to this spot,” Washington Informer Publisher Denise Rolark Barnes told the contestants. “You should be proud of yourselves before ever getting on stage.”
Rolark Barnes has produced the bee since The Informer took on the endeavor in the early 1980s. For more than 15 years, D.C. schoolchildren could not participate in the national competition for lack of a sponsoring newspaper.
In the early days of the bee, her stepmother, attorney Wilhelmina Rolark, defended The Informer’s right to sponsor the bee at all. She challenged the Scripps rule, which barred weekly newspapers from sponsoring local bees, a rule that disproportionately affected African-American children. Scripps changed their rule, and the rest is history.
The Washington Informer has sent spellers to the Scripps National Spelling Bee since 1981, and this year Margaret Isacson will continue the legacy when she competes in May.
The 35th annual Washington Informer Spelling Bee will air on WRC-TV (Channel 4) on Sunday, April 9 at noon.