Champion spellers from 24 local schools competed to be the best on the island at the 39th annual St. Croix District Spelling Bee at the Good Hope School Friday. The bleachers in the auditorium were a sea of colored polos and plaid skirts of every hue as each school sent a delegation in their distinctive uniforms to cheer on their speller.
The 24 contestants, ranging from age nine to 13, looked nervous sitting on the stage in rows of folding chairs. In her opening remarks, Deputy Superintendent Janine Schuster reminded them to take deep breaths and congratulated them on making it this far.
Each speller had to win class bees and school bees to advance to the day’s competition. The top six spellers at the district bee would be sent to St. Thomas to compete in the territorial bee on March 9 for a chance to advance to the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
“I’m so proud of each and every one of you,” Schuster said. “It’s your day.”
As the spelling began, the contestants thinned quickly. Four spellers were eliminated in the first round and five more in the second. By the start of the fifth, only half the contestants remained.
Each student had his own style at the mike. Some blurted out their answers immediately while others took their time, asking for the definition or origin of their word, hoping to find some insight into the vowel or consonant that was stumping them.
Sometimes these tricks weren’t enough and the spellers had to rely on their intuition.
When Aaron Harris of St. Patrick’s Catholic School received the word “quiche,” his eyes grew wide. He admitted later that he’d never even heard of a quiche before. He stalled for time as he pondered his options then replied, “q-u-i-c-h-e?” drawing out the last letter into a question.
Head judge Maureen Moorehead signaled that he was correct and Harris slapped both hands onto the back of his head, looking like the most surprised person in the room.
At the end of round 7 only six contestants remained and the judges stopped the competition momentarily so the crowd could congratulate the students on winning the right to advance to the territorial bee.
They were Imani Evans of Pearl B. Larsen Elementary, Yad Bass of Ricardo Richards Elementary, N’bari Alexander of Church of God Holiness, Aaron Harris of St. Patrick’s School, Kyle Fennessey of The Good Hope School, and Khaien Donnawa of Claude O. Markoe Elementary.
The bee progressed quickly from there. Alexander was eliminated in the next round on the word “emphasize.” In round 10, Evans, Bass, and Fennessey each missed their word (“slanderous,” “ghastly,” and “ultralight” respectively) leaving only Harris and Donnawa in the competition.
The final two spellers matched each other in round 11. In round 12, Harris correctly spelled “nuance,” but Donnawa stumbled on “zaniness.” According to the rules, Harris had to spell one last word correctly to win. He stepped to the mike nervously, but when he received his word, “jocular,” he smiled.
“J-o-c-u-l-a-r,” he said quickly, then jumped about the stage waving his arms as the judges confirmed his spelling.
“I feel so excited and surprised because I didn’t know I would make it this far,” Harris said after the awards ceremony. “I made 8th last year and thought I’d make 6th or 5th this year.”
Harris, a 10-year-old sixth grader from St. Patrick’s School, bested several competitors older than him to win. He credited his success to all the studying he did with his coach and family and repeated a bit of wisdom they taught him.
“All I have to do is make an educated guess. Not a guess guess, an educated guess,” he said.
When asked specifically about his nail-biting performance on the word “quiche,” he grinned and said, “Okay, that one I probably took a little bit more than an educated guess.”