Saturday, September 19, 2020
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Putnam spellers & Md. students head to Washington

ELLICOTT CITY, Md. (March 23) — Even in these weeks after a gun massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and a shooting that killed one student and left the gun-wielding student dead at Great Mills High School in St Mary’s County, Maryland, students can still laugh about aspects of their lives while being serious about others.

A mural on the wall at Centennial High School, Ellicott City, Md. (Voxitatis)

According to a photo in the Baltimore Sun by Kim Hairston, one of the signs students from Pikesville High School in Baltimore County will bring to the March for Our Lives in Washington Saturday will read, “Arm me with books, counselors, social workers, nurses, art/music/drama teachers, heat, AC, water, paper,” all under a handgun with a red slash through it.

A video made by students at Woodland Middle School in Gurnee, Illinois, in Chicago’s northern suburbs, features several students from the school reading letters they wrote to their governor, senators, and representatives.

Students at the Illinois school gathered for 17 minutes on March 14 to write about gun violence, to create a personal action plan of 17 acts of kindness, or to write a poem on peace, kindness, or social change. This was done to honor the 17 lives taken in the Florida school shooting and to implore leaders in Springfield, Annapolis, and Washington to bring about meaningful change that aims to keep them safe from gun violence while they’re attending school.

And at Centennial High School in Ellicott City, Maryland, about 100 students put on a musical Friday evening: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

Even there, one loudly outspoken speller manages to bring the gun issue to the stage. As two characters talk on a cellphone, she stands up at the mic and rallies the audience to support her cause, charging them to believe national change is within the realm of possibility to make schools safer for students.

This timely yet timeless interjection brought the play, first produced in 2005, into the current moment. It was written to do just that: Julie Andrews once served as one of four real audience members who join the six actors on stage as spelling bee contestants and misspelled supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. But students, being more tuned in to school events than politicians, are uniquely situated to convey this message in no uncertain terms and with no made-up words.

And the passion brought to the stage not only by high-energy Logainne but also by former spelling champion Rona Lisa Paretti (Sydney Grossman), who now serves as the emcee, couldn’t possibly be topped by any other cause in the nation’s capital right now, including a piece of school-related legislation or the right to compete in a national spelling bee.

At the end of the musical, characters come to the mic to recap what becomes of them later in life. Logainne, in her T-shirt that proclaims “Resist,” announces that she becomes the US secretary of education under President Oprah Winfrey. And also that her speech therapy has been effective in eliminating her lisp, which is equally important when you’re in elementary school.

The real audience members here were solicited in the line entering the auditorium before the show, as two students walked out to shout down the line and request volunteers. A few moments later, they came back out and extended personal invitations for a few people. These ad hoc spellers were eliminated by intermission but had the chance to participate in a few dance numbers and spell a few words that were intended to poke fun.

But the action from the actual actors gets interesting after intermission, as one contestant (Matt Sorak), bemoaning his elimination from the bee, opens the Second Act from the house, throwing candy from a vendor’s tray, as if he were at an Orioles game. The crowd went wild.

Later, two contestants with a crush on each other ponder the deeper meaning of spelling. When one switches the first two vowels in “Olive,” it spells “I love,” did you know? Later, Olive is called on to spell chimerical, a word that triggers a daydream about her often-absent parents’ love. Her daydream brings out her mom (Gillian Rossbach) and dad (Colton Smith), dressed in a beautiful green gown and suit. The trio sing “The I Love You Song” in bold and tuneful voice.

So we ask, as we reflect on Centennial’s unique interpretation of this musical and on tomorrow’s events in Washington, Which is more chimerical—an absent parent’s love, a spelling bee in Putnam County, or meaningful school safety legislation in Congress?

In performance at Centennial High School in Ellicott City, Maryland, March 23–25. Music and lyrics by William Finn, book by Rachel Sheinkin, conceived by Rebecca Feldman, with additional material by Jay Reiss. Appropriate for all ages. Musical productions in high schools often include the hard work of hundreds of students, teachers, and other community members. We write about them in support of new federal legislation in the Every Student Succeeds Act, which directs schools to include music and the arts as part of a “well-rounded education” for students in the US.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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