BANGOR, Maine — Just a half hour after winning the 2012 Penobscot County Spelling Bee, Caitlin Hillery of Bangor was drawing an uncharacteristic total blank.
After being asked to recall the winning word she correctly spelled to win her second straight County title, the All Saints’ Catholic School eighth grader rolled her eyes upward and scrunched her nose a bit as the wheels began turning inside her head.
“Um… What WAS the winning word?” the 14-year-old asked herself as she gazed at the ceiling of Husson University’s Gracie Theater. “I’ve got it… Amphibious? Was amphibious the word?”
Amphibious was indeed the word — the word that earned her an expenses-paid trip to Washington, D.C., and one of two spots to represent Maine and compete in the Scripps National Spelling Bee May 30-31. The other Maine representative is Cape Elizabeth Middle School student Nat Jordan, who won Saturday’s other state final spelling bee at the University of Southern Maine in Gorham.
Instead of one site for all state finalists to compete, the competition was expanded to two sites when Husson offered to host a competition this year for Penobscot County students, with the other 15 counties competing at USM.
What a difference a year makes. Last year, her Penobscot County victory won her a spot in the Maine State Spelling Bee finals, where she was eliminated from further competition — ironically, after correctly spelling the wrong word.
“I spelled the wrong one. They wanted ‘ductile’ and I gave them ‘ductal,’” Hillery explained.
Irony was again with Hillery this year, but in a more positive way as the runner-up, Veazie Community School sixth grader Kaylyn Larkin, was the 25th contestant to be eliminated Saturday on a word that was uniquely familiar to Hillery.
“The word the runner-up student went out on was ‘gazpacho’ and we all remembered it well because we watched a comedy show about a person who traced the downfall of his career to gazpacho soup, and his name has no ‘T’ in it, which was a great reminder for Caitlin, who kept wanting to use a ‘T’ in it,” said Bill Hillery, Caitlin’s father and a math teacher at Eastern Maine Community College.
Caitlin Hillery was one of 26 students from 14 schools to take the Gracie Theater stage at Husson University to compete for County spelling supremacy. The competition went at a brisk pace and took just about 90 minutes to conclude. Hillery appeared cool and focused despite spelling in front of crowd of about 250 people.
“Um, I don’t really get stage fright when I’ve performed on a stage before, so it was familiar to me. Plus I did this last year and that made it easier,” said Hillery, who loves to read fiction for enjoyment. “I concentrated on thinking through it and not rushing ahead. I also asked questions more to give myself a little more time, especially if I’m not sure on the word.”
That’s not to say Hillery wasn’t a bit nervous.
“I wasn’t that nervous, actually,” she said. “Well, I’m a wreck when it starts, but after awhile, I just realize I’m not nervous anymore and I’m fine.”
She became even more fine as the herd of spellers started thinning.
“I feel more relaxed when there are fewer people because it’s another step closer, but I wasn’t really relieved until the end,” she said.
Apparently time has a way of calming Hillery’s mother, Mona, as well.
“I nearly had a coronary at her first spelling bee, which was this one last year,” her mother admitted. “After that, I just took a step back and I’ve been ever since. I just realized I can’t do anything about it so just watch it.”