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Spelling prowess runs in the family

 The Bauman spellers, from oldest to youngest:  Austin,  Haley,  Matthew and  Katelyn, who was the 2007 representative for Centennial Middle School,  are shown Wednesday at the All Valley Spelling Bee. 
 (Photo courtesy of Kyle Schafer / The Spokesman-Review)
The Bauman spellers, from oldest to youngest: Austin, Haley, Matthew and Katelyn, who was the 2007 representative for Centennial Middle School, are shown Wednesday at the All Valley Spelling Bee. (Photo courtesy of Kyle Schafer / The Spokesman-Review)

Austin Bauman – that’s Austin with an “i” like the city, not Austen with an “e,” like the last name of Jane the English novelist – comes from a family of gifted spellers.

Since 1999, a Bauman has represented Centennial Middle School at the Spokane Valley Spelling Bee in every year but one. Austin, 20, was the first. Katelyn Bauman, 12, because she’s the West Valley family’s youngest child, is last. The seventh-grader made her first Spokane Valley Spelling Bee appearance last week at Bowdish Middle School.

In an endless world of spell-checked documents and text messages that read like runes of a lost kindergarten tribe, the Baumans do spelling old school by committing words to memory. Because they’ve done so together for so long they’ve also come up with more meaningful definitions for the words that really matter: family, tradition, effort.

“I always tell them, ‘No matter the outcome, you worked hard to get here and you’re one of the select to be here so be proud of your accomplishment,’ ” said Mary Bauman, mother of the dynasty.

None of the four Bauman children has ever won the 12-school All Valley championship, but Austin placed second on two separate occasions. He’s now in college but still remembers the last guy to beat him.

“His name was Kyler Hood,” Austin recalled. “K-y-l-e-r. Hood, H-o-o-d.”

The word that tripped up Austin in that final bee of 2001 was “oscillate.” To this day he still stalls five letters into the word when spelling it, turning it to and fro in his mind, trying to remember if it has one “l” or two.

Every champion speller eventually runs into a word he or she doesn’t know. And of the hundreds of words a competitive speller learns, the one he never forgets is the one that ultimately strikes him out.

Austin could have told Katelyn this before the ‘07 bee last Wednesday. It’s the kind of event in which words like “orthographic convention” whip nervous competitors’ palms into a sudoriferous state. Sudoriferous is crossword puzzle speak for sweaty, and it was Katelyn’s turn to be nervous, as evidenced by the wadded paper towel she fiddled with throughout the contest.

It’s a long journey to the All Valley Bee from Centennial Middle School. You first have to outspell literally everyone in your school. Entire classes test for the opportunity. The best in each class advances to an all-grade competition, which leads to an all-school competition for a seat at the All Valley Bee. Last year, Katelyn fell one contest short of making the All Valley Spelling Bee: She lost to her brother Matthew.

The words get harder as contests progress. Mary Bauman and her husband, Scott, take turns running Katelyn through 100 words every night, words like “oligophagous,” used to describe a creature feeding on a limited variety of foods. The parents need a phonetic cheat sheet just to pronounce the test words properly. The spell-check software on the family computer knows only a few of the words.

At the bee, Austin and most of the Bauman clan watched from the peanut gallery. Haley, the Baumans’ second-oldest child, checked off a list of 100 words used in the first seven rounds, as contestants tensely disarmed the lexicon like agents in a bomb squad.

Mary Bauman stared downward, trying not to make eye contact with her daughter, fearing that if she did, Katelyn might mistake the glance as meaning the girl’s spelling was off.

Scott Bauman scanned his daughter’s face anticipating her delivery much as he does in their backyard while sitting on a five-gallon bucket catching softballs while Katelyn works on her pitch. At the bee, she made it past the words on the study list and into the rounds of those no one was familiar with before she spelled one wide and to the outside.

“I lost on ‘defamation,’ ” Katelyn said, explaining that in a moment of doubt she spelled the word with a “ph” instead of an “f.”

The girl that knocked Katelyn out by spelling the word correctly was Catelin Hess of Horizon Middle School. That’s Catelin with a “C,” not a “K,” and an “i,” not a “y.” Hess. H-e-s-s.

And that sent the Centennial champ to sit with her family in the peanut gallery, still holding the paper towel she nervously mangled during the competition, still burning into memory the spelling of the word she missed.

It would be wrong to suggest that “defamation” was the only word Katelyn took home from the bee, because after the final word is spelled, all competitors must gather to shake hands and tell each other “good job.”

It was a lot easier to be congratulatory as champ at Centennial than it was after striking out at the All Valley contest, said Katelyn, still looking for the word associated with holding a modest opinion of one’s own importance. And it was great to stand with her three older siblings afterward for a commemorative photograph of the Bauman dynasty, though the word to describe the experience didn’t quite roll off her tongue.

The world of words is often like that. The definitions come first, leaving us to ponder for a concise expression.

“Yeah,” Katelyn said. “I’m a Bauman, and this is what we do.”