In 2006, newly minted fourth-grader Brittany Joe stepped up to the microphone to compete in a spelling bee at Martin Luther King Jr. Library in Sacramento's Meadowview area.
Joe, who suffers from a learning disability that makes it difficult for her to learn things by hearing them, couldn't sound out the words as they were read off to her. She failed to place in the competition and sat down, teary-eyed.
But during the next few years, she entered the bee again. And again. And again. She memorized every word the judges might ask her. She highlighted different syllables in different colors so she could learn to spell the words visually.
All told, she competed in the spelling bee five times, persisting until she won first place in 2009. Then, she came back in 2010 and won the bee again as an eighth-grader.
Joe's success story is one among many at the library, where children throughout Sacramento have been participating in the spelling bee since its founding 11 years ago.
Gwen Fleming, a volunteer, started the competition with the Friends of the Sacramento Public Library, created the bee to supplement the library's learning center, where students are tutored in math and reading.
The learning center program at the library served fewer students after several years because of funding problems, but the spelling bee remained and flourished.
"The first year I had four students," said Fleming, president of Friends of the Sacramento Public Library. "This last year I had 125."
Martin Luther King Jr. Library and the spelling bee are educational hubs of the Meadowview neighborhood, where 28 percent of the residents are below the poverty line and the median household income of $36,196 is 30 percent lower than the citywide median.
Children are bused to the library, or show up with their parents, to receive tutoring, participate in speech and essay competitions and spell against each other for hours at a time.
At this year's bee, held Wednesday and Thursday, students from first through eighth grades competed in a tiny nook in the corner of the library. They walked up to the table one by one and dipped their hands into a fishbowl glass filled with paper strips. They read the number on the strip sometimes in a quavering voice and received the corresponding word from the moderator.
Then, they repeated the word into the microphone, then wrote the word down, while the audience members waited and spelled the words to themselves.
After that, the children spelled the word out loud no repeats and listened for applause or the dreaded tinkle of a bell that signaled an incorrect spelling. This went on for 90 minutes, with children standing up and sitting down, musical chairs-like, until the field of competitors was whittled down to one.
Raphael Charleswell watched spellers for nearly two hours as his daughter Corea went toe-to-toe with 16 other second-graders. He was late for his shift at a corrugated box warehouse so he could watch his daughter vanquish one difficult word after the other. When she spelled her second-to-last word, "C-A-L-I-F-O-R-N-I-A," the audience erupted into cheers. They were even louder when she finally won the second-grade division.
"She loves it," Charleswell said of the spelling bee. "She looks forward to it all the time."
The parents, many of whom are busy with jobs, often find themselves staying for the entire spelling bee after their children finish competing, Fleming said.
"People who come think they're coming for an hour and they stay for the whole thing, almost," Fleming said.
In addition to inspiring parent involvement and providing a place for the community's children, Fleming gets a sense of accomplishment from watching students wrestle with words and learn how to read better.
She enjoys watching students like Joe, who try until they develop study habits that allow them to triumph in the competition.
"One of the things is just seeing them up there and being so proud of what they do and how they learn," she said.
After she finished competing in the bee, Joe entered high school and kept the study skills she had learned, which helped her breeze through spelling tests and ace every class. She finished her freshman year at George Washington Carver School of Arts and Science in Rancho Cordova with a 4.0 GPA.
"It made me more self-confident in improving myself," Joe said.
Now, when she sees tearful children sitting down after misspelling words, she consoles them and reminds them that not everybody starts off at the top. It takes practice, dedication and learning how to learn all skills she gathered from her time as a spelling champ in progress.
"It's very encouraging to see somebody who knows where you've been," she said.
Call The Bee's Benjamin Mullin, (916) 321-1034.