NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. - Xi Yuan Wang and his mother flew 15 hours from Shanghai to reach the site of the Scripps National Spelling Bee but he almost missed his preliminary written test Tuesday morning when he accidentally slept in.
Translating from Mandarin for his mother, Bin Cao, a math teacher in China, Xi said she was “so sorry this morning because she didn’t waken me up on time. When I woke up, it was 8:30. So I ran all the way here.”
He made his 8:45 a.m. time slot but was not pleased with how he thinks he’ll score. “It was the worst test I’ve ever taken,” the 12-year-old 6th grader said.
The sprawling Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center was abuzz Tuesday with young test-takers from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, American Samoa, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Defense Department schools in Europe and seven foreign countries. The on-stage rounds of what becomes a national cliffhanger begin Wednesday morning, with nationally televised finals Thursday night.
Dwight M. Moore Jr., 13, of Memphis, Tennessee, said he’s ready to get started after taking the written test. His beaming mother took his picture with other kids against a backdrop of banners celebrating winners of the bee dating back to 1925, when the winning word was “gladiolus.”
“He’s so excited so, as a mother, I’m excited for Dwight,” said his mother, Geneva Simpson Moore, a nurse. “He’s wanted to do the Scripps Bee since he was a little kid. This is the first year his school had participated and it’s his last year of eligibility, so he got in right under the wire.”
Spellers and parents in “Wanna Bee” and “Spelled It” T-shirts milled around the testing room, where little dramas played out. Some left the room visibly upset and were cradled by parents. Others, more stoic, indicated through body language that it could have been worse.
Christy Jose Jestin, 12, of Boston, whose parents are from Kerala in India but who was born in Kuwait, has the typical broad background in other languages many spellers bring to the contest. He speaks his parents’ Malayalam but also a smattering of Arabic and Telugu.
“The world is so small now,” his father, Jestin Jose, said of the cultural mélange present at the bee.
That’s the background Madhav Chand Srivatsa Gampala, 14, of Bradley, Illinois, brings to the national stage, with familiarity with Hindi, Telugu and Gujarati. A self-possessed young man born in Hyderabad who won his countywide bee with “mynheer,” a Dutch word for a man, he already knows what he wants to do for a living.
He’ll be a chief financial officer, he said, combining computer skills with a natural extroversion.
For Maria Victoria Kaltchenko, 12, of Tupelo, Mississippi, language proficiency includes her mother, Svetlana’s, native Russian, some French learned living in Canada, and a grounding in the violin, which her mother teaches.
“Sometimes I write the word over and over again to imprint it on my mind,” Maria said, describing one study technique.
More than 11 million students participated in the local bees that winnow out winners for the trip to the 87th annual Scripps-sponsored bee outside Washington, D.C.
The spellers range in age from 8 to 15, but the largest share of the competition, at 34.8 percent, are 13.
Almost 68 percent go to public schools, 18.5 percent to private schools, 6.8 percent attend parochial schools and 3.9 percent are home-schooled. Of the 281 spellers, 142 are girls (50.53 percent) and 139 are boys (49.47 percent).
They’re competing for a $30,000 cash prize and trophy as well as a $2,500 savings bond and $1,200 worth of reference material, including an online E-N-C-Y-C-L-O-P-E-D-I-A.