Only four of the original 14 competitors remained. The four seemed tense. Fifth grader Alexa Ponder stepped to the microphone.

“Principal,” she said. “P-R-I-N-C-E-P-A-L.”

Members of the audience sighed in sympathy.

“So close,” said her mother, Cheryl Ponder. “So close.”

A few moments later, Alexa left High Point Elementary School’s cafeteria stage and took a seat in the audience. Cheryl Ponder smiled towards her daughter. “She did a good job,” Cheryl said, nodding approval.

She did. Although Alexa was noticeably nervous – “She doesn’t like to be in the spotlight,” her mom said. — she stood up to the mic that day in what has become an elementary school winter ritual, the annual school-wide spelling bee. Many elementary schools hold bees in January to choose entrants in district spelling competitions, school officials said.

Geordyn Marks

At High Point, in Sandy Springs, the top two spellers in each class – eight fourth graders and six fifth graders -sat in stiff wooden chairs arranged in a tight arc on the cafeteria stage. About 45 minutes later, only fifth grader Elise Schaeffer remained. She also won the school bee last year. “The girl can spell,” her mother, Jennifer Schaeffer, said proudly.

Spelling may seem like something from a dim, book-centered past in these days of text-message abbreviations and keyboard-generated emoticons, but the high-pressure, stand-up-and-spell-it-right spelling bee holds on. In fact, it’s celebrated, showing up everywhere from movies to a musical to cable TV channels, where bees are covered like sporting events.

Besides, these kids take them seriously. Geordyn Marks sure does. To prepare for the High Point spelling bee, she studied lists of words that might show up in the competition. When she was eliminated, she appeared to wipe tears from her eyes.

“At home, she loves to test me,” said her father, Alan Marks Sr. “We bought her a dictionary and every once in a while, she opens it up at random and finds words and makes me spell them.”

Geordyn comes by it honestly. Her mom, Kijuana Marks, said that when she and Alan were in college, he once gave her a paper to read. She corrected it. “I gave it back covered in red marks,” she said, smiling.

“They double-team me,” Alan said.

“I wouldn’t call it double-teaming,” Kijuana said.

“They double-team me,” Alan replied.

Alexa Ponder

But spelling is important, Kijuana said between pecks at her Blackberry as she waited for the High Point bee to begin. “It’s a big deal,” she said, “because no matter what kind of communication … spelling is still the foundation of what we do.”

After the High Point bee, as the students prepared to return to their classrooms, Geordyn already was thinking about next year. She’d had fun, she said, and hoped to be back on stage next winter. Besides, she had other things to get excited about right then. Her mother had promised a treat because she’d spelled so well.

“I’m going to get my nails and toes done after school,” she said.

Joe Earle

Joe Earle is Editor-at-Large. He has more than 30-years of experience with daily newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.