PERRY -- Paolo Francisco has been here before.
He has felt the butterflies and developed a trick to control his nerves: he doesnt dare gaze at the audience of more than 100 people, who are gawking at the 13-year-old as he draws a breath to spell the word restaurant. He has spelled this word before. It was two years ago at the same competition, and he got it wrong.
Jordan Rodgers has never been here. She is tired after staying up late the night before, poring over words that most people her age have never heard of. The 11-year-olds parents sit hunched forward in the audience, closing their eyes and holding their breath as their daughter takes the microphone.
Jordan and Paolo were the last two students standing in Houston Countys districtwide spelling bee Friday. The bee pitted 28 fourth- through eighth-graders against one another, asking them to spell words such as bequeath, sombrero, wanderlust and pangolin.
Im feeling pretty nervous right now, said Jordan, a fifth-grader at Kings Chapel Elementary School.
For decades, the districts elementary and middle schools have each held their own spelling bees, sending their winners on to compete for the district title. The district winner and runner-up will represent Houston County in the regional spelling bee at Fort Valley State University on Feb. 23.
The regional winner will advance to the state competition, and that winner will go on to the national spelling bee.
It goes way back, said Nancy Richardson, reading and language arts coordinator for Houston County schools. Its just a tradition.
Its a tradition that students -- as well as parents and teachers -- take seriously. Students took a breath and looked upward, spelling the words silently before saying them aloud. When the judges could not decide whether one girl spelled a word correctly, the puzzled girl said, Im done saying it.
They counted the letters on their fingers as they spelled cauliflower, macron and rupee. They were stumped by words, such as pheasant, subtleness and fathom. Some hung their heads and shuffled off stage.
As the caller, Im a nervous wreck. I can only imagine them having to stand up in front of their peers, said Amy Myers, who announced the words. Its very intense.
Nine-year-old Trynity Banks beamed at the audience after correctly spelling aria. Her grandfather, Leon Walker, put his hand over his mouth as he waited for his granddaughter to spell.
Im really proud of her, said Walker, of Warner Robins. Its wonderful just for all of them to be here.
But, one by one, the students were defeated by many-syllabled words with strange pronunciations and silent letters. As the final two stepped to the microphone, Jordans parents and teachers squinted in concentration as she spelled her words letter by letter.
Its almost like having your own child up there, said Eddie Williams, Jordans assistant principal at Kings Chapel Elementary. I take that deep breath with her when she goes up to spell a word. Then I let it go when she spells it correctly.
When its down to the final two, if one student misses a word, the other student must spell that word and another word correctly to win. When Jordan missed restaurant, Paolo took a breath and stepped to the microphone.
The moment was familiar to the Huntington Middle School eighth-grader -- that same word defeated him as a sixth grader. But, he got it right Friday and then correctly spelled aviation for the win.
This feels good, said Paolo, who enjoys tennis and baseball and spent the past several mornings cramming for the spelling bee. And its my last year, too.
Paolos parents and teachers yelped and jumped to their feet when he spelled his last word correctly.
My heart was racing, his mother, Nerissa Francisco, said. It was nerve-wracking, but I had faith in him.
Paolos teachers describe him as a quiet student, who is so bright that they question whether he even needs a teacher.
Weve been sweating more than he has, said Kristi Slavik, the drama director at Huntington Middle, who helped Paolo prepare.
The crowd gathered around Paolo and Jordan, who gripped trophies, shook hands and smiled for photographs and interviews. Both will go on to the regional spelling bee.
When I messed up on restaurant, I kind of wanted to kick myself because I studied that word, Jordan said. But Im still psyched.
To contact writer Jenna Mink, call 256-9751.