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Laura Kessel is managing editor of The News-Herald in Willoughby. She writes a weekly column and shares her thoughts here.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Trio of youngsters spell S-U-C-C-E-S-S in bee

When you deal with words for a living, you probably should consider yourself a good speller.

That’s not the case with me.

Like most of us, I’m grateful to the genius who invented spellcheck. If there’s not a monument dedicated to that kind soul, then there should be.

I don’t think Mount Rushmore is too big a reach in this case. Just think of those of us who’ve been saved by his or her handiwork!

I just wish there was a spellcheck that could be activated when I’m not on the computer.

Sure, the dastardly “auto-correct” kicks in when I’m using Twitter or sending a text message or email on my cell phones. But, when you’re writing or when someone asks you how to spell a word, it sure would come in handy to have a version of those little underlines giving you a hint that you’re screwing it up.

I thought of that on Thursday morning at Kirtland Library while watching three youngsters competing in the Tri-County Spelling Bee.

This trio — Vishnu Nistala from Shore Middle School in Mentor; Alexis Zahuranec of Notre Dame Elementary School in Chardon; and James Elliott of Grand Valley Middle School in Orwell — probably don’t even realize there was a world before spellcheck.

They’re lucky.

They’re also excellent spellers. They’re champion spellers, as a matter of fact.

James won the Ashtabula County Bee; Alexis won the Geauga County Bee; and Vishnu won the Lake County Bee.

Vishnu also outlasted Alexis in the Tri-County Bee, earning the right to head to the Scripps National Spelling Bee in May in Washington, D.C.

I don’t want to put too much pressure on you, Vishnu, but we’re expecting big things. That’s not an unrealistic expectation, either.

Not judging by his performance in this week’s bee, when he and Alexis went 40 rounds before the winner was decided.

If you’ve never watched a spelling bee, you owe it to yourself.

These kids are equal parts brilliant, brave and adorable.

The latter is the most obvious as they and wait for their turn. As you look on, you can see them mouthing the letters to the words the others are spelling. They fidget and shift in their seats as they wait their turn.

It’s easy to see that they’ve just been plucked from class to attend the event, dressing like every other middle-schooler you’ve ever seen at the mall or waiting at the school bus stop.

Alexis was the stylish one, with her leather jacket, jeans and boots as she made her way to the front of the room for the competition. When she lost the jacket, she revealed wrists stacked with black bracelets. Vishnu turned to his “lucky” Shore Middle School hoodie, the same one he wore during the Lake County Bee I judged Feb. 23 at Auburn Career Center.

The bravery showed up when each one left their parents’ sides to head to the three chairs in the front of the room. They had to get up, introduce themselves to the crowd of about 30, then stand up to spell their words when it was their turn. It’s good to see they don’t have that hesitation that it seems age brings. You know the one that makes us think about stuff we have to do, and then we chicken out.

Their parents are just as brave as the kids, sitting in the audience enduring what probably is the most pressure their children have felt in their young lives, putting on their supportive faces as they melt inside from the nerves.

I saw it first-hand while sitting across a tiny aisle from Alexis’ parents on Thursday. I got my first hint when Mom reached over and grabbed Dad’s hand and whispered, “I can’t stand it. I’m sweating already and we haven’t even started.”

A few minutes later, just as I looked back over at them, she whispered to Dad with a laugh, “I’m going to be sick.”

Throughout the bee, both Mom and Dad moved around in their seats, and at one point after Alexis nailed a word, Dad leaned forward, put his head in his hands, took a deep breath and let it out with a forceful sigh.

Alexis, for her part, was focused on her parents, too. On many occasions, after correctly spelling a word, she’d plunk down in her chair, look out at one of her parents and grin widely with a knowing smile.

As the final two spellers, Vishnu and Alexis, rolled through their words, I struggled with the idea that one of them had to lose. This pair rarely called on the pronouncer to give them extra information on the words they were assigned. It seemed that the only times they asked for the part of speech, definition, word origin or for it to be used in a sentence was when they wanted to work it out in their head before launching in to the spelling.

In the end, Vishnu was G-R-E-G-A-R-I-O-U-S after spelling that final word correctly and sealing the victory and the trip to Washington. Alexis was no less spectacular, but stumbled in the 40th round on “adamant.” James bowed out in the 10th round on “ductile.”

As I look over the word list, I see one of the next words to come up would have been “meticulous.” I think it’s fitting that what we’re now waiting for is a bit of that type of preparation from Vishnu before his visit to the nation’s capital at the end of May.

Here’s hoping he’s equal parts brilliant, brave and adorable.
Twitter: @Lauranh


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