A-C-C-E-S-S. That was the winning word for F.N. Brown Elementary fourth grader Mia Fricke, who claimed top honors in the 2023 Verona Spelling Bee last weekend in F.N. Brown Auditorium. A decades-long tradition for Verona’s fourth and fifth graders, the annual Spelling Bee sponsored by the Junior Women’s Club of Verona sprang back from a three-year pandemic hiatus with 43 contestants from six schools, a special canine guest, and a new grand prize trophy designed by a local sculptor.
As a relative newcomer to Verona, I had no idea the tradition existed because of its absence during the pandemic. But the moment I heard the Juniors needed a volunteer to revive it, I leapt at the chance.
I loved the idea of hosting a local game show of sorts, getting children to playfully compete, and, in the end, rewarding an academic success. And let’s face it, I always fancied competing in a spelling bee. This was a chance to live vicariously.
Cathy Petrozziello, a fourth grade teacher at Our Lady of the Lake Roman Catholic School, said the Bee gives her students a way to test their skills under pressure, polish their stage presence and follow rules. It also enhances what she teaches students in the fourth grade about confronting their fears, trying new things, and learning from others.
“We need these kids to try things and not be afraid of failing so they learn something,” she said. “This is a great age – fourth and fifth grade – because their brains are developed to the point where they can do these deeper thinking skills.”
During the competition on Saturday, Petrozziello handed out peppermints to stimulate her students’ brains. When they eventually misspelled words and left the stage, she greeted them with a hug and a lollipop.
Mayor Alex Roman and Verona Public Schools Superintendent Diane DiGiuseppe served as judges for this year’s competition, ringing the bell 42 times before declaring a winner.
The competition was fierce, as 40 of the 43 contestants exited the competition early, armed with words that they likely will never misspell again such as carbohydrate, waltz, and pirate.
The three left standing walked away with an invitation to represent Verona in the Liberty-Palisades District Spelling Bee on February 25.
Fifth grader Lucy Caruso of H.B. Whitehorne Middle School placed second and fourth grader Matthew Fiederer of Forest Avenue Elementary placed third. Fricke, Caruso, and Fiederer also earned books and trophies.
Fricke’s grand prize trophy was commissioned specially for the Bee and donated by Verona artist Jessica Miranda, a high school art teacher for 27 years who recently launched a ceramics studio to create her own works of art. Leading up to the Bee, Miranda shared photographs of her progress on social media – from the original sketches to the finished product as the clay cup came out of the kiln coated in a glass glaze and liquid gold.
“So many volunteer for Verona for different things,” she said. “I don’t coach. I don’t play sports. I work full time and I have three kids close together in age. I was happy I could dedicate some time to giving something back to the town. The irony is I’m the worst speller. Spell check has a hard time figuring out what I’m trying to say.”
The event featured refreshments donated by Blue Hippo Coffee Company and free books provided by the Friends of the Verona Library. Verona School District provided the venue and Verona Police provided security.
Because all of our anxiety has been heightened in recent years, especially our children’s, Juniors volunteer Julia Prout brought Morris, an adorable Labradoodle who serves as the therapy dog for Prout Funeral Home. He eased nerves with nuzzles and comforted contestants as they left the stage.
All of this to say, “community” would have been a fitting final word. But “access” captured an important element of the Bee too. The Juniors don’t charge an entry fee and cast a wide net to make sure all children can participate and feel welcome.
The kids did their part by keeping the competition friendly. As soon as Fricke spelled the winning word, Caruso, a former softball teammate, gave her a thumbs up and they pounded fists.
To prepare, Fricke’s mother Jacki quizzed her and her twin brother Josh over dinners. Josh made it through several rounds before misspelling “hollow.”
But 10-year-old Mia didn’t expect to win. She just wanted to have more fun with words – the same reason she started a book club with other fourth graders at F.N. Brown. So far, they’ve enjoyed Eva Ibbotson’s “One Dog and His Boy,” Lauren Wolk’s “Beyond the Bright Sea,” and, of course, Judy Blume’s “Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing.”
As the Verona Spelling Bee’s reigning champion, Fricke doesn’t know yet whether she will defend her title next year.
“Once is enough,” she said. “I kind of just wanted to have fun.”
If she does return, the competition might be a little less friendly. Her brother wants vindication, while their younger sister Erin will be in fourth grade and eligible to try to beat them both.