Excerpt: Marshall Winchester
Charlotte, North Carolina
No one spells like Marshall Winchester. Tall, slender, bespectacled, with short-cropped black hair, Marshall takes hold of the microphone before issuing the letters. He stands as if ready to make a firm, declarative statement. He pauses for a moment, perhaps several moments, thinking—but not too long. Others may hem and haw, but not Marshall. When he’s ready, he proceeds through a word with no hesitation and no doubt. Speaking in a loud clear voice, made musical by his soft North Carolina drawl, he hammers each letter home—almost shouting them—in an even cadence, much like a master blacksmith taking pleasure in pounding an errant piece of iron into a perfect horseshoe.
“He always has a joy about it,” says his father, Eric. “The Charlotte Observer described him one year as a ‘loud confident speller with a southern accent.’”
And that he is. As when Marshall faced lignite, a type of coal. Grasping the microphone firmly, speaking directly into it, he proclaimed his choice of letters as if in a clarion call: L! I! G! N! I! T! E! When he was done with lignite, it wasn’t just spelled, it was rendered defenseless, dispatched, dispensed. It would never again raise its sulfurous head at a spelling match to challenge him. Lignite whimpered offstage. Lignite had been spelled by Marshall.
In the days leading up to Marshall’s 2005 regional bee in Charlotte, North Carolina, it seemed a given that he would win the contest. Having made it to Nationals the last two years—placing an impressive fourth out of 265 spellers in 2004—winning his regional was expected to be as easy as hanging upside down from a high tree branch, which the thirteen-year-old does regularly And Marshall, a devoted student of many subjects, including Bible studies and advanced mathematics, focuses like a laser beam on his study of language. He’s a word aficionado. He gets the same kind of pleasure from spelling obscure words that other kids get from video games and iPods—neither of which Marshall has any interest in. Moreover, the Winchester family is a tight-knit clan, and spelling, specifically the spelling success of oldest son Marshall, is a central part of that family life.
However, as we sit here on this sunny Thursday morning in February, waiting for the Charlotte bee to begin, winning seems like quite a trick…