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It’s any speller’s bee at Holy Family Elementary School

After competition by grades, school finals will be held April 29
Cora Anderson, who will go on to compete in the Holy Family Elementary School spelling bee finals on April 29, also submitted this drawing for the art contest associated with the bee. (Amy Kenny/Yukon News)

Unload — that’s the word that undid Thys Eikelboom on April 25.

“I did an A (at the beginning of the word). I should have done a U,” he says, sitting on the couch in the library at Holy Family Elementary School, minutes after the Grade 2 spelling bee has ended.

He stares off into space.

“I should have done a U!”

He says it again, more emphatic now, frustrated upon realizing he knows how to spell it. But then he looks into the brown paper popcorn bag that every spelling bee participant is given when their round is done. “Oh hey, I still have a little bit of popcorn left!” He reaches into the bag for it. “Yum!”

Just like that, the eight-year-old is talking about snacks, triple jump, who in his class is the best at math (Benjamin), which of the spelling bee draw prizes he’d most like to win (the rope swing) and the farthest distance he’s ever run (three miles, although he’s done way more than that on a bike). It’s safe to assume the experience hasn’t scarred him. In fact, Eikelboom was the first person to run up and congratulate his classmate Hazel Oxford, one of the two Grade 2 students who will go on to compete in the school-wide championship on April 29.

That’s the kind of excitement they want to see, says Gina Anderson, one of the members of Holy Family School Council who’s responsible for organizing the bee, which began in 2021 as a way to build a sense of community after the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“At the end of the day, we do need to get down to one winner, but the focus has always been on fun,” she said. That’s why the gym is decorated with black and yellow balloons, helium-filled bees, and streamers. It’s why there’s popcorn; grab bags filled with little toys and bee stickers; donated cookies from Air North; costume, door-decorating and art contests; and dozens of donated draw prizes for anyone who participates in even one round of spelling. Anyone can opt to “pass,” though Anderson says not many do. She estimates 95 per cent of the school has participated since the bee began, with about 135 students from Grades 2 to 7 taking part each year.

“We’ve also made a big effort to run the bee in a way that doesn’t draw attention to those who didn’t move forward,” said Anderson. “No one is singled out and told they were wrong right on the spot as they stand vulnerable at the microphone. Each student spells their words and once everyone has had their turn for that round, the judges tally the results while the spellers munch on popcorn. Only then are the spellers who are moving forward announced.”

Oxford, 7, was one of them, along with a classmate named Benjamin.

When her name was announced, she turned toward the classmate sitting next to her and clapped a hand over her open mouth.

“I’m not surprised that Benjamin won,” she said after the Grade 2 session has ended. “I am surprised that I won.”

She holds the certificate that congratulates her for moving on to the finals. It has a gift certificate for Boston Pizza and a fidget toy. She’ll also get an Air North cheesecake at the end of the day, although she’s less excited about that (“I do not like cheesecake, but my brother is a beast at cheesecake”) than she is about telling her mom, Holy Family’s vice-principal, that she won. She says this is the first time that’s happened.

She flips the certificate over. On the back are the words she’s going to have to study over the weekend.

It’s a Grade 3 list, which means Oxford will shift from words like frog, met and steep, to words like agree and discuss.

In the finals, a total of 12 spellers will compete against each other — two each from Grades 2 through 7. Each will be asked to spell words that correspond to their grade level, but which will become increasingly difficult as they progress.

This way, anyone can take the crown. In 2021, the only year kindergarten students participated, a kindergartner did.

That student was Cora Anderson. Now in Grade 3, she’s headed back to the finals in 2024.

Anderson says she typically starts studying a list of around 150 words, roughly three weeks in advance of the bee. Her main focus is on spelling them over and over, while visualizing what each word is in her head.

During competition, when she’s standing at the microphone, she tries to imagine no one else is in the gym with her — not her classmates, not the two judges and not the pronouncer, who acts as a tiebreaker if the judges disagree on a ruling. That’s the advice she’d give to anyone else who’s nervous about a bee.

“And,” she said, “I think I’d also say that sometimes when you got too excited, you mess words up.”

That’s what happened to her in 2023. Anderson got the word strange and was too pumped up about it. She knew how to spell it (just like how Eikelboom knew unload), but excitement got the better of her.

This year, she’s going to keep calm and spell on when the finals take place.

One winner will take home the crown (or, in this case, the statue) for the Holy Family Elementary School spelling bee on April 29. The winner also receives a $100 gift card for Coles. All finalists enjoy a pizza party. (Amy Kenny/Yukon News)