Needled by a noodle

Last year's spelling champ victorious in Chinle as competitor stumbles on 'lokshen'

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

CHINLE, February 7, 2013

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T he word gods were not kind to Samuel Yeager.

Just as the crowd at the Chinle Agency Spelling Bee was settling in for the expected pitched battle between the Chinle Junior High eighth-grader and his arch rival, Aarish Raza, also of CJHS, Yeager choked in round 11 on a Yiddish word for noodles.

It hardly seemed fair, minutes after his Pakistani Muslim rival had easily fielded "imam," that Yeager got tossed "lokshen," a word neither the pronouncer nor the judges had ever heard of and admitted they wouldn't have known how to spell. (Yeager almost got it, inserting a "c" before the "k.")

But there it is. A spelling bee may be 99 percent ability, but that one percent of luck will trip you up every time.

Raza, the champion of last year's Navajo Nation Spelling Bee, correctly spelled "adagio" and then "precipice" to win.

Yeager had to call upon his reserves of graciousness once again.

At last year's Navajo Nation bee, had been on the verge of being declared the winner when Raza's dad challenged and several reviews of the tape recording revealed Raza had correctly spelled "bellicose," putting him back in the game and allowing him to eventually defeat Yeager after 22 one-on-one rounds.

His body practically shaking with disappointment, Yeager had shrugged to the Navajo Times, "There has to be a winner and a loser."

This year, after hearing Raza reveal he had been reading the dictionary word for word "since last summer," Yeager admitted, "He's a better studier than me."

But it's not over; the two will face off once again at the Navajo Nation Bee at the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority conference room in Chinle March 7 and hopefully provide us with a better show.

In the meantime, instead of buying him a bigger dictionary, Yeager's parents might do well to schlep him off to Brooklyn for a language immersion trip where he can nosh a knish with the shiksas and maybe even confront the dreaded lokshen. One thing is for sure: He will never slip on a noodle again. And whether or not he wins the bee, Yeager is definitely headed for the diplomatic corps.

Both boys asked after Cairo Nez, the diminutive fifth-grader who had given the older kids a run for their money at last year's Navajo Nation bee. But alas, Cairo too had had bad luck, not even making it to the Agency bee. Sick with the flu the week of her school's spelling bee, she had rushed through the easy word "positive" and forgotten the "s," ousting her early on.

Asked if she was disappointed, she looked at the floor and nodded her head. But Nez is young and, believe us, is already studying for next year.

Yeager and Raza will age out after this year, as will another familiar face, long-time judge Deidra "Dee Dee" Mendenhall.

For 32 years, Mendenhall, with her boyish haircut and colorful clothing, has been as familiar a fixture at the Chinle Bee as Webster's dictionary. But she is poised to retire and move on.

Mendenhall, a mixed-grade teacher in the Chinle district, said she'll miss the bee.

"It just gets under your skin," she said. "I think the kids get better every year."

Perhaps the horrible flu season was getting everyone down; the pronouncer was coughing between words and all the grade matches were disappointingly short.

Abraham Aruguete of CJHS followed in the footsteps of his older brother and sister, both spelling champs in their day, winning the seventh-grade competition. But Raza later argued Aruguete's runner-up, Cheyenne Yazzie of Round Rock Junior High, should have challenged.

Yazzie had spelled "calendar" with an "er," but there really is a word "calender," Raza insisted, so she should have been warned the word was a homonym.

The pronouncer looked it up and, sure enough, there was "calender." It's a piece of equipment used in manufacturing cloth.

"I almost challenged for her, but I didn't know if I was supposed to do that," Raza said.

Anyway, Yazzie will have a chance to redeem herself at the Navajo Nation bee, as the top two from every grade level go on to that competition.

Other grade-level winners were Warren Billie of Piñon for sixth grade, with runner-up Irvilinda Bahe of Mesa View Elementary in Chinle; Cameron Fuller of Mesa View for fifth grade with runner-up Tiyonia Littleben of Rock Point; Cael Denetdeel of Mesa View for fourth grade with runner up Alandria Yazzie of Mesa View.

Why was Mesa View such a powerhouse?

"The teachers there are committed to word study and word knowledge," explained Mesa View's spelling bee sponsor, LaRita Chapman, who, speaking of commitment, was also suffering from the flu and dragged herself out of bed so her charges wouldn't miss the competition. She also gave credit to the students' supportive parents.

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