How do you spell longevity? To use the word in a sentence, a moderator might bring up the Great Fishtown Spelling Bee, which will hold its 18th annual event on Oct. 24 at the Shissler Recreation Center.
It’s unusual enough for a volunteer-run community event to reach legal voting age, rarer still for a neighborhood that’s undergone as much change as Fishtown has over the past two decades. When he founded the bee in 2002, attorney A.J. Thomson viewed it as a way to curb the preconceptions people held regarding his native neighborhood, which hadn’t yet become overrun with trendy eateries and concert venues.
“A lot of people attached a negative connotation to our community prior to what I call ‘hipster salvation,’” Thomson said. “The spelling bee was a way for me to show the rest of the city that we actually do value education and that there are a lot of really good kids here.”
The spelling bee, presented by the Fishtown Neighbors Association, is open to students from all area schools, typically attracting between 100 and 200 participants. The competition is divided into three age groups: grades 2-4, grades 5-6, and grades 7-8. The hosts follow the Scripps Howard format, with wrong answers leading to elimination until one winner remains in each age group. The words are drawn from typical spelling books used by public and private schools, without the more obscure entries that often appear in national contests.
“We’re not looking for words in the medical dictionary, like they do on TV,” Thomson said. “But some of the words do get pretty hard.”
While the organizers stress the element of fun, providing pizza and allowing the kids time to socialize, the competition can be intense. According to Dolores Griffith, a second-grade teacher at St. Laurentius Catholic School, that’s especially true — but also beneficial — for younger children.
“It can be hard sometimes for the little ones when they lose, but I think it builds character,” Griffith said. “It promotes sportsmanship and makes sure that someone is rewarded for doing well. For the others, it offers the experience that you don’t always have to be a winner to be a winner.”
The field is a little more open this year with the aging out of 13-year-old Victor Torres, a regular participant who won six of the seven bees that he entered. His mother, Melissa Torres, is a seventh grade teacher at St. Peter the Apostle who encourages all of her students to participate.
“The bee really brings together the students in our community,” Torres said. “Kids from both public and charter schools in the neighborhood and across a wide range of ages come together and are able to showcase their abilities.”
The same holds true for their parents, who often have difficulty finding the time in their busy schedules to meet their neighbors, especially with the rapid influx of new faces and families that Fishtown has enjoyed in recent years. It also provides an example of volunteerism that is important for spellers and parents alike.
“Seeing adults that are involved in the community is important for the children,” Griffith said. “It shows them that being involved with your neighborhood is the way that you should act as a citizen. This is what community is all about.”
Thomson’s life has changed in similarly profound ways in the years that he’s spearheaded the spelling bee. Still a bachelor when the first winners were crowned, he’s now watching the youngest of his four daughters compete in her first event this year. The family ties are important, as he says it was his own parents’ example that taught him the importance of public service.
“The most satisfying part to me has just been knowing that I’m still able to bring this together, that people value it, and that I’m now passing that on to my kids,” he said.
“The spelling bee was here before investors started tearing down houses. There are some Philadelphia traditions that have been enhanced by new blood. We have volunteers whose husbands were Korean War veterans and have been in the neighborhood for 80 years; we also have volunteers who are new to the neighborhood. So we’ve got a good mix of people helping out, and that’s what it’s supposed to be all about.”