The emcee asked whether they were nervous. Little heads nodded.
Then one by one they took the stage, elementary and middle school students from across Lincoln stepping to a lone microphone in front of more than 100 people and waiting for a word to spell.
The pressure was on. But kids will be kids.
“Duty,” a pronouncer read near the beginning of the practice round.
The schoolgirl on stage giggled: “Could you repeat the word?”
“Duty." More giggles.
“D-O-O-D-Y,” the speller said with a smile.
The audience laughed -- especially the nervous spellers.
For its 26th year, Lincoln Public Schools held its annual spelling bee Saturday morning. The event, co-sponsored by LPS and the Lincoln Journal Star, had 80 participants from grades 5-8 this year.
One incorrect letter, and you’re out -- slumped shoulders and disappointment.
Get the word right, you're in -- fist pump and a “Yes!” from some, or at least a big sigh of relief.
On to the competitive rounds.
“A-U-T-H-O-R-I-T-A-T,” one girl spelled out before stopping mid-word. Seconds felt like minutes. Her brain worked overtime.
“I-V-E,” she finished.
The auditorium released a collective breath. The speller gave two thumbs up for her fans in the audience.
Round after round, the line of students waiting to spell thinned. And then there were two.
Round seven: the finals.
Irving Middle School seventh-grader Emma Johnston stood on stage with one gray sock and one purple sock but plenty of poise. A nervous Divith Rajagopal, a fifth-grader from Maxey Elementary, bit his nails.
They had practiced for this moment. Emma, who won third place last year, studied words all year -- until her father forced her to go to bed the night before the bee.
Divith practiced, too, but on Saturday he admitted he was “75 percent nervous and 25 percent OK." That's coming from the younger brother of a national geography bee victor.
The two took turns spelling their words, usually asking the country of origin and the definition. Knowing a word's roots can help, Emma said later. Certain spellings come from certain locations and languages, which help her sound out the word based on what she knows about its origins.
After Divith misspelled the word "volatile," it was up to Emma to take first place. She had to spell Divith's correctly, as well as another.
The room was silent except for the hum of the speakers.
“That is C-O-R-R-E-C-T,” said Gwendolyn Bell, a spelling bee judge.
A smile flashed across Emma's face as she clapped her hands, her lucky purple and gray socks proving their worth.