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Fastest (spelling) fingers in town


SPRINGFIELD — When eighth-grader Nate Huddleston used sign language to spell "awkward" in Friday’s statewide spelling bee for deaf students, the word seemed fitting.

Minutes earlier, the Pittsfield youth prematurely had been declared the winner in his age group, students 13 and older. Judges belatedly realized that even though Nate correctly spelled "multiplication," a word missed by eventual second-place winner Daniel Carrasco of Chicago, Nate then transposed a couple of letters on the would-be championship word, "jewelry."

As the judges conferred for several minutes in sign language, audience members and the contestants kept silent, their eyes focused on the signing. Finally, the judges decided that Nate had not truly won, so he and Daniel stepped back onstage to resume their spelling battle.

Nine rounds and 19 words later, Nate really did earn victory by correctly spelling two words in a row: "horrify" and "nagging."

Audience members showered him with applause — not by clapping their hands together, but by holding their arms above their heads and shaking their hands back and forth.

Afterward, Nate said that despite the mishap on the word "jewelry," he was confident he could win.

"I was spelling too fast. I was in a hurry to get it over with," Nate said of the misspelling.

"It was confusing," the smiling 14-year-old added, referring to the glitch that resulted in the premature declaration of victory. "It was a challenge again. I just had to prove myself again."

He offered a bit of advice: "If you’re in the spelling bee, just keep cool."

Nate, who attends the Illinois School for the Deaf in Jacksonville, was among 10 contenders in his age group for the 2004 Statewide Deaf Fingerspelling Bee. The Illinois Deaf and Hard of Hearing Commission sponsored the event, which was held at the Department of Agriculture’s administration building on the Illinois State Fairgrounds.

Patterned after the Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee, the fingerspelling bee was modified for its participants, who are deaf or hearing-impaired. There were two age groups: 10 to 12, and 13 and older.

As contestants took turns onstage, they were given the sign for a word, such as "photograph" or "refrigerator." Then they had to spell the word, signing it letter-by-letter with their fingers.

Nate and his parents, Steve and Kim Huddleston, said he spent a lot of time preparing for the spelling bee, either studying alone or with others, including teacher Andi Chumley.

"He would say to me: My fingers are so tired," Kim Huddleston recalled.

The spelling bee’s first-, second- and third-place winners from each age group won a trophy, and the first-place winners also will receive a $50 savings bond. Every participant was awarded a medal hanging from a red, white and blue ribbon.

LaDale Williamson, an Elgin native and a fifth-grader at the Illinois School for the Deaf, walked away with the first-place trophy for the younger age group by correctly spelling "helicopter" and "buffalo."

LaDale said he studied hard for the event, often skipping recess so he could spend more time practicing his spelling skills with teachers Judy Williams and Mary Anderson.

Many of the spellers were joined by mini-entourages of friends and family.

The rooting section for 11-year-old Jessica Willoughby, a seventh-grader at the School for the Deaf, included her parents, Jerri and Jeff, and 10-year-old brother, Jeb. The family lives in Jacksonville.

"It’s wonderful to get all the deaf kids together and have this spelling bee for them," Jerri Willoughby said.

Jessica earned the third-place trophy for the younger age group. Second place went to Marlet Mancera of Chicago. Among the older students, Cristina Duran of Chicago won third place.

This was the first year the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Commission sponsored the fingerspelling bee, as well as the first time it was held in Springfield, officials said. Previously, it had been coordinated by the Chicago mayor’s office.

"I think it went very well," said John Miller, director of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Commission. "I think everybody enjoyed themselves."



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