More than 30 students were poised and ready in March to take their turn on stage to spell their way to victory. But for the foreseeable future, the only word anyone would be spelling is p-a-n-d-e-m-i-c.
The Gazette-Mail made the decision in mid-March to cancel its regional spelling bee amid the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. There was no way to host the bee while continuing social distancing procedures. The Gazette-Mail Regional Spelling Bee was to be sponsored by SMART 529, WSAZ-Charleston and HD Media.
A month later, on April 21, the Scripps National Spelling Bee was canceled.
For Mark Imbing, the winner of last year’s regional bee, it was a bummer. Mark was the Gazette-Mail representative at the 2019 national bee in Washington, D.C. As he moves on to high school in the fall, he’s no longer an eligible speller.
“I felt sad that the bee was canceled,” Mark said. He had been studying hard for an attempt at a repeat performance and a chance to go back to Washington.
He’s still working on his vocabulary and spelling in preparation for the ACT and SAT tests looming in the years ahead. A word that gave him problems in the past was “ayatollah,” he said, noting there is no “i” in the word. He thought there may have been two vowels together, he said, but was wrong. The misspelled word landed him in second place at the 2018 regional bee.
When he’s not working on vocabulary and schoolwork with his mom, he’s been staying busy.
“I’ve been doing lots of fun stuff,” Mark said. “I’ve been playing my piano and learning chess with my father.”
When asked if he’d bested his father at the game, Mark responded “kind of,” explaining that he’d almost trapped his father’s pieces.
The 14-year-old is entering Woodrow Wilson High School in the fall as a freshman and has a career goal in sight. He wants to be a computer scientist.
“I’ve been using lots of technology in my life, like games, phones, computers, my tablet and especially my keyboard,” Mark said. “So I thought maybe I should help there, because we don’t know what the future will bring.”
Some of the spellers said they saw the move coming after schools were closed and activities were canceled.
“Kinda had a feeling the bee would be canceled,” said Sohan Kukkillaya, 13, of Charleston. “We’ve been watching the news and everything, paying attention to what’s going on.”
For Sohan, who just finished up middle school and will be a freshman at George Washington High School in the fall, it was his last chance to compete at the regional bee. He won the Kanawha County Spelling Bee in January by correctly spelling “centipede.” He’d placed second in the 2017 Kanawha County Spelling Bee.
“It’s a fun way to show what I’ve studied and a fun way to show what I’ve put my time and effort into,” Sohan said.
He hasn’t been taking it easy since the bee was scratched. He’s been busy with school work, and said he plans to keep working at spelling words. A word that sometimes gives him trouble is “thyme,” though he wouldn’t be the first to miss a silent letter here or there. He said spelling is a good skill to have and would help later in life.
As for his plans later in life, Sohan wants to be a surgeon.
“I haven’t decided specifically,” he said. “I think it would be fun to help people and have an impact in their life.”
Carleigh Lewis, the 12-year-old who won the Putnam County Bee, also wants to be a surgeon when she grows up — or maybe an author, or both.
Her mom is a nurse practitioner, and Carleigh said she likes learning about different procedures. She also writes short stories for fun.
Carleigh, like Sohan, wasn’t surprised that the bee wasn’t to be this year.
“When I heard that we would be off school and everything, I kind of knew,” that there wouldn’t be a spelling bee, she said.
Carleigh said she was excited for the regional bee because she’d won the county competition this year after not doing as well as she’d hoped last year. She won the Putnam bee by correctly spelling “officiant.” In preparation for last year’s spelling bee, she said she had to learn the word “auf wiedersehen,” which is German for goodbye. She said it’s still a bit tricky for her.
The Teays Valley Christian School seventh-grader likes to read fiction books, like the Harry Potter series or anything like that, and has been using books to fill her days outside of schoolwork.
“I’ve been reading a lot, and I do track so I kept running,” Carleigh said. “I started learning French the other day. I wanted to learn another language.”
Carleigh said she likes to spell because she likes to read, so it comes a little more naturally.
“It helps to have a good vocabulary,” she said.
The staff at the Gazette-Mail applaud these young spellers and wish them well in their bright futures.