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Jamaican Spellers’ Ban Sparks Tiff

January 12, 1999

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The national spelling bee _ as innocent as apple pie, right? _ has spawned an international incident of sorts.

Young spellers from Jamaica, home of the reigning champ, have been disqualified from this year’s competition. The island nation is in an uproar. A spelling coach is quoting scripture in his defense. Even the Rev. Jesse Jackson has entered the fray.

And it doesn’t end there. Some people in spelling bee land wonder whether Jamaica is drilling students to be super spellers to beat the Americans.

``The idea that there’s this crop of kids spelling their minds out in a spelling factory is not accurate at all,″ says O’Neil Hamilton, a spokesman for Jamaica’s embassy in Washington.

It all started last May when 249 spellers traveled to the 71st annual spelldown in Washington. The contest is open to contestants from any country, but only a handful come from outside the United States. The event is sponsored by Scripps Howard, part of the Cincinnati, Ohio-based E.W. Scripps Co., which operates newspapers and television stations.

Worried that some youngsters might be getting extra time to study, spelling bee officials imposed a new rule: To be eligible for this coming May’s competition, spellers had to win a qualifying regional or local contest held no earlier than this Feb. 1. That would require a change in Jamaica, which for nearly four decades has held its spelling bee the August before the event.

Jamaica’s bee, however, was held again in August. Scripps Howard then disqualified the sponsor, Phillips & Phillips Stationery Supplies Ltd., from sending spellers to this year’s competition.

``Some people have taken this action as anti-Jamaica. We have not banned the country,″ says Paige Kimble, director of the spelling bee. ``It’s a specific move against a sponsor, not a country.″

But the action hit hard in Jamaica, which has sent spellers to Washington only twice _ both with good results. In 1997, Jamaican speller Jason Edwards James placed eighth and last year, Bettina McLean finished sixth and Jody-Anne Maxwell became the first non-U.S. citizen to win the competition by successfully spelling her final word C-H-I-A-R-O-S-C-U-R-I-S-T (an artist who works in lights and darks).

``She’s a folk hero. She’s like Michael Jordan,″ Hamilton said of Jody-Anne.

Karen Thomson of sponsor Phillips & Phillips says she didn’t get written news of the rule change until two weeks before Jamaica held its bee on Aug. 12.

Bee officials claim the sponsor tried to qualify two contestants for this year based solely on their previous qualification to last year. Ms. Thomson says that’s not true _ that she only was inquiring about rules for repeat contestants.

``We basically are a Third World country. We have a very small voice _ like a squeak _ and nobody listens,″ says Ms. Thomson, who claims she’s spent nearly $1,500 since August on long-distance calls to resolve the dispute.

Ms. Thomson says she told bee officials that to comply, Jamaica would hold new regional competitions after Feb. 1. But officials said they didn’t want to start making exceptions. Two other companies in Jamaica offered to be the sponsor, but Ms. Kimble said they had connections to the August bee, and for the ``sake of propriety,″ officials essentially told the Jamaicans they’d consider them in the future.

The Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, founded by Jackson, has written letters to bee officials, saying their action has effectively excluded the young spellers of African descent. ``This certainly appears to be very exclusionary,″ says spokeswoman Valerie Johnson.

Kathryn Lewis, 12, who won the Jamaican bee in August and was anxious to compete in Washington, hasn’t given up. ``It doesn’t look like I will be able to go, but I’m still hoping the Lord will work it out,″ she said in a telephone interview.

Some U.S. spellers wonder if Jamaica isn’t taking the bee a bit too seriously.

``Jody-Anne was really nice and that’s why I feel bad about it. I think they are really great spellers,″ says former contestant Yan Zhong, 13, of Vero Beach, Fla. ``But I guess they broke the rules.″

The Rev. Glen Archer, a high school religious studies teacher who has coached nearly a dozen spelling champs in Jamaica, says he expects excellence from his students. But he says Jamaica must accept the decision and look to the future.

``I do my work well. It’s taken very seriously here. If people want to call that a spelling bee factory, that’s their problem,″ Archer says. Then he quotes Ecclesiastes 9:10: ``Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might.″

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