Every March, members of the audience at The Buffalo News Spelling Bee sit in wide-eyed awe as children try to arrange in order the letters of words many have never heard or seen before.
But if they are paying attention, they will notice that one word is almost always part of the competition: Pivarunas.
“Can I have the language of origin?”
It is Lithuanian.
“Can I have the definition?”
A person who is a phenomenally gifted speller, thanks to a combination of schooling, genetics, sibling competition, Post-It notes, positive family influence and hard work.
Can you use it in a sentence?
“I was feeling good about my chances to win the spelling bee, until I saw a Pivarunas.”
OK, so you won’t find the word in Merriam-Webster. Not yet, anyway. But if the clan of 12 – homeschooled in Elma by their parents Dr. Anthony and Susan Pivarunas – keeps achieving spelling greatness, someday, you might.
Year after year, the Pivarunas kids bring their A-game to the bee for all to see.
• Gregory Pivarunas, now 25 and in medical school, was the first to appear. He placed third in 2002.
• Anthony, now 20 and a geophysics major at Geneseo State College, won as a seventh grader in 2006. He went on to the national competition in Washington, D.C. In 2007, as an eighth-grader, Anthony placed seventh.
• His younger sister Anne, now 17, went to the Bee in 2009, coming in eighth.
• Elizabeth, 15, placed fourth in 2011.
• Clare, 14, is the latest Pivarunas to get The News’ Bee buzzing. She placed sixth in 2012. She entered the 2013 Bee, held a few weeks ago, and placed fifth.
The good news for all the wannabe spelling champions out there? More than half of the Pivarunas clan have used up their eligibility. The bad news? There are five more, waiting in the wings, and probably reading the dictionary while you’re reading this.
“We all have the bug,” Susan Pivarunas says.
Anthony’s 2006 victory, which led him to the stage at the Scripps National Spelling Bee in the nation’s capital, galvanized the troops.
“After that it was even more exciting, because there was a possibility of going to Washington for the week,” she said. “I went with him. My husband said, ‘You go, you’ll enjoy it more.’ It was the most incredible week. He had worked really hard at it, and now here were 200-some kids who did the same thing he did. He met so many great kids, made really great friends. It was cool.
“After that, all the kids, that was their dream.”
The Pivarunases’ flair for spelling is such that even their errors are admirable.
One word that once flummoxed Clare was “hedonism,” defined by Merriam-Webster as “the doctrine that pleasure or happiness is the sole or chief good in life.”
Her family, she realized later, had gone over the word at home. But her father had pronounced it “HED-o-nism.” The emcee was saying “HEE-do-nism.”
“Can the word also be pronounced “HED-o-nism’?” she asked.
The answer came back: “No.”
She goofed the word. But she won her dad’s approval.
Susan Pivarunas laughs at the memory. “He said, ‘Clare, I’m so glad you don’t know anything about hedonism.’ ”
Hedonism, however you pronounce it, is not the path to good spelling. The path to good spelling is much more complicated.
The Pivarunas parents, who moved here from Chicago, make their home at the top of a hill. To get there, you must first deduce the house number, and then follow a long twisting driveway through the woods.
“Warning: Dog,” reads one sign. The next sign says: “Caution: Children.”
Next to the house sits a ramshackle teepee. The spellers, who love science as well as letters, fashioned it out of branches lying around. There’s a swing set, and a swimming pool. The land backs up to the Buffalo Creek.
The complex is not as isolated as it seems. Dr. Anthony Pivarunas is an OB/GYN at Sisters Hospital. The kids belong to a home-schooling organization, Children of Mary. They have their friends and their peers – in departments other than spelling, that is.
The home schooling ends with eighth grade. While Clare is still taught at home, Anne and Elizabeth now attend Immaculata Academy.
All three girls, gathered around their big kitchen table one sunny morning, laugh when asked to yield their spelling secrets.
They read a lot, they admit. And we’re not talking Harry Potter or “Twilight.” Talk around the kitchen table turns to J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” and Rick Riordan’s “Percy Jackson and the Olympians,” which touches on Greek myths. Clare loves Riordan’s “The Kane Chronicles,” which incorporates Egyptian myths.
Reading helps you recognize words. And Lizzie suggests noticing the roots of words.
One such root, she says, is the syllable “greg.” It helped her spell correctly a word a friend had goofed, the word “egregious,” and also the word “aggregate.”
Ann remembers one Children of Mary spelling bee in which she and her sister Lizzie were both competing against the same girl. Two words helped the Pivarunases emerge victorious: “saboteur” and “raconteur.” The girls had studied words with that sound.
Word puzzles help, Susan Pivarunas says, and jigsaw puzzles and Sudoku are good for reasoning. The Pivarunases, who are traditional Catholics, frequently attend Mass in Latin. Though they don’t go specifically for spelling reasons, familiarity with Latin helps with the many long English words that grew from Roman roots.
One revealing artifact spotted at the Pivarunas home is a dictionary with hundreds of little colored Post-it notes stuck to its pages. Each colored note marks the spot of a different tricky word: “Adjacent.” “Accommodate.” “Corpuscle.”
Clare said the sticky notes with the words were Lizzie’s idea.
“I can find them easily,” she says. “I think it’s cool, ’cause it’s so colorful.”
Susan Pivarunas approves.
“You want a dictionary to be used, not just sitting there,” she says.
“Drudge work is underrated,” she says. “Hard work is a good virtue to cultivate.”
‘That slip of the tongue’
It’s easy to give credit to home schooling for spelling acumen. Some of the top competitors who will take the stage next month in the National Bee will have taken that route. And the winner of the 2013 Buffalo News bee, Madeline McCoy, is also home-schooled.
However, Deb Patti, who organizes The Buffalo News’ annual bee, noted that kids from conventional schools often excel.
“Our champion three years in a row, Nabeel Rahman, was from Casey Middle School,” she points out.
Home-schooled kids could have an edge, though. The best spellers, judging from Patti’s observations, are the children with unconventional knowledge, kids who do more than simply memorize a commonly circulated book of spelling bee words.
“You always get a number of children, you can tell they’ve memorized the entire book,” she says. “When we have to go to the additional word list, that’s when they’re starting to fail. Because it can be any word from the dictionary.”
Experts are quick to point out that because of texting and social media, people are doing a lot more writing and a lot less talking. But an average text or Facebook page shows that hardly anyone minds his P’s and Q’s.
“I’ve seen Facebook,” Lizzie Pivarunas shudders. “It was horrendous.”
Times may change, but champion spellers have always been rare. Editor and Publisher, the trade magazine of the newspaper industry, called spelling a lost art back in 1951.
Because of the challenges involved with the English language, the spelling bee – glorified in the 2002 documentary “Spellbound” and dramatized in the 2006 film “Akeelah and the Bee” – is more than holding its own as a dazzling sport. There’s a reason, after all, that the biggest bee of them all is shown on ESPN and not TLC. Contestants need not only have to be able to think, but to think under pressure.
“Some are more poised than others. Some seem more relaxed,” Patti said. “I’m sure they’re all feeling nervous.”
The Pivarunas kids have been prepared for that.
For one thing, they all play the piano. They have no pretentions of being virtuosos, but learn things they like: the theme from “The Mission”; John Denver’s “Annie’s Song” and a beginner’s sonata by Mozart. Occasional recitals help them learn to deal with nerves.
They delight in spelling drama.
Anne fondly remembers one match that pitted her against Lizzie. “I was in eighth grade. We were the top two spellers. We kept going back and forth.”
“They knew we were sisters,” Lizzie beams.
So it was a win/win situation, right?
“I did win,” Anne admits, laughing. “So it was even better.”
The girls take some care with what they wear to the competitions. “Clare went to Lizzie for advice,” Susan Pivarunas says. “Lizzie’s the fashionista.”
When the word is called, and the pressure is on, the Pivarunases all offer the same advice: Pray.
“I pray, and I tell myself to calm down,” says Clare. “I think of the support of everyone. My sisters say, ‘We’re rooting for you.’ ”
“I also pray,” says Anne. She has another tip, too: “Spell slowly.”
Susan, preparing them in drills at home, is scrupulous about clarity. In competition, a speller in midspell who says a wrong letter is not allowed to go back and start again.
“We count that slip of the tongue,” she says. “We pay attention to detail. I’m a math major. You have to give the right answer.”
And when you don’t?
Ancient rules of sportsmanship demand that one accept defeat with grace.
“Everybody remembers the word that brought them down,” Susan says.
Anthony, according to meticulous family records, won his bee with “eustachian” but lost with “protrusile.”
Anne, sighing, admits she was brought down by “occlusal.”
And Clare, rolling her eyes, names “twoling,” her nemesis in 2012, and “adiabiatic,” this year’s bugaboo.
Feelings never grow acrimonious, though. And anyway, there’s always next year.
In 2014, 11-year-old Therese will be in sixth grade, which means she could be a contender. After that there is Joseph, 9; Catherine 7; and Thomas, 5.
The baby of the family, Monica, could prove the ultimate secret weapon. At 3, she is already starting to spell.
“She’ll tease us,” Susan Pivarunas laughs. “She’ll say a bunch of letters in a row and try to be part of it.”