Spelling bee coordinator ready to pass the torch

LAWRENCEVILLE - The night before the Gwinnett County spelling bee is a sleepless one for Cindy Gaskins.

No matter how prepared she thinks she is, that's when she is inundated with worries: Do we have a water pitcher? Does anything else need to be on the registration table? Do we have all the signs we need?

After coordinating the county bee since 1991, Gaskins is passing the planning responsibilities - and the sleepless nights - to Carey McDurmon, a reading specialist at Grayson Elementary School.

"After 16 years, and I'm getting old, it's time for me to hand this over to someone who is younger," the 49-year-old said as she laughed.

In the 17 years since Gaskins first co-coordinated the spelling bee, there has only been one county competition she did not run. In 1995, someone else in the district volunteered be the coordinator - and discovered how much time and energy it takes to plan a spelling bee.

So the next year, Gaskins became the sole coordinator. She hasn't taken a break since, even two years later, when she shattered her elbow after she fell off the bathtub ledge while painting her bathroom. She took five weeks off of work to recover, but the school system had its spelling competition that year.

As the number of fourth- through eighth-graders competing has grown, Gaskins has had to make changes in the way the county bee operates. Three years ago, she created the school district bees, which meant Gaskins had to run five competitions simultaneously at five high schools.

But if running one county bee makes for a sleepless night, five bees compounds that stress. Gaskins created a new formula, which went into effect this year. Participants sat in every other seat in every other row in Mill Creek High's theater and participated in a written bee. The top 11 spellers performed in an oral competition to determine their rank, and each will compete at 10 a.m. Saturday in the district bee at Collins Hill High School.

"It's not a perfect, finished product," she said. "There's a lot of room for growth. There's a lot of room for change. Unless you try it, you don't know it will work."

Gaskins said the bee would never happen without the help of the caller (a role which radio personality Scott Slade has filled for years), judges, spotters and the newspaper sponsor required for the bee to be recognized nationally. The Gwinnett Daily Post and the now-defunct Gwinnett Daily News have sponsored Gwinnett's bee.

While Gaskins will serve in an advisory role for the new coordinator, she will remain in the school system. The special education teacher at Jones Middle School has plans to retire soon, so she can spend time with her 2-year-old and 3-month-old grandsons. She also wants to open a business and finish writing her books (she has two fiction books and one nonfiction book in the works).

Spelling is important to Gaskins, who said she reads everything - from newspapers and magazines to letters - with a red pen in her hand, circling spelling and grammatical errors.

"Being a good speller means you're a good reader," she said. "People view your writing and judge you."

Competition at the state and national level is fierce, she said, and students who have the potential to win enjoy learning everything they can about a word: how it is pronounced, what it means, where it comes from.

"I enjoy sitting down and reading the dictionary," she said. "The spelling be is not for everyone, just like playing football is not for everyone, ... (but) all of us should be spelling bee material."