Henley Middle School seventh grader Saurish Srimath Tirumala won Albemarle County’s division-wide spelling bee in February, competing against the five other county middle school bee champions for the title. He’ll go on to vie for the top spot in the Central Virginia region on March 11 at Albemarle High School, and the winner of that bee heads to the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., in late May.
Saurish, who goes by Rish with friends and teachers, said he likes the bees. “I’ve been participating in school spelling bees since the fourth grade, and I’ve always thought they were pretty fun,” he said. “I’m just okay in English class, but I like spelling, and I do like the competition.” While spelling in school is mostly practiced via vocabulary lessons, Saurish also reads for fun, with The Mazerunner being a recent favorite book.
Any competitive speller knows the value of preparation, and Saurish studied the word list given out before his school bee and spelled the words with his parents after school. “About half of those were pretty easy but by the last page they got more difficult,” he said. “By the time we got to the bee, I had memorized most of them.” That task became much harder for the county-wide bee, as the word list was new and four times as long, with much harder words.
“My parents have helped by calling me words,” said Saurish, “and they also downloaded an app to pronounce some of the words so they’d be sure to pronounce them correctly for me. They even found time to write out some of the definitions of the harder words so I could ask for that.” Competitors are allowed to ask questions about their word, such as its language of origin or use in a sentence, which advanced spellers do for varying reasons. “If I have questions about a word I’ll ask, but sometimes I just ask random questions to give me some time to think.”
Saurish said the county bee was much more intimidating than his school bee. “At the school bee I was not very nervous, but at the county one my heart was beating like crazy, it was just so nerve-wracking,” he said. A couple of unusual events contributed to his nerves, especially during the last of the 13 rounds.
“It was really exciting,” he said. “I actually got a word wrong—the word was ‘cabal’—and so I was out and went to sit with my parents. But I was lucky because the other two people in that round got their word wrong too, so we all got to go back up on stage. My dad looked at me with huge eyes and we were like, ‘Yeah!’” Saurish knew the top three finishers would advance to regionals so he was happy and more relaxed when he returned to the stage, but another twist was still to come.
“My final word that I had to spell to win was ‘ballyhoo,’” said Saurish, “but when I had studied the list, the word on there was ‘ballyhooed.’ I actually knew the word, but I was confused because I was wondering which one they were asking.” He asked for the word to be repeated several times, trying to listen for the ending, and finally spelled the right version to win.
Cecilia Shultz, Henley’s Talent Development Resource Teacher who organizes the school’s bee, noted that Henley has been a spelling dynasty lately, as the school’s winner has won the regional competition and advanced to the Scripps National Bee in each of the last three years it has been held. “I would love to take credit, but I’m just the facilitator,” she said. “I think we have really good spellers that come through here, but one simple thing is that I hold our [school] spelling bee early in the school year, so the winners have more time to study for the next round.”
The regional bee will feature 26 spellers—the top students from Albemarle and other area division schools—with representatives from both the middle school and elementary school sections who will compete separately. “I think [the nervousness] is going to be ramped up way more because there are many more people and I don’t know how good they are, it’s going to be crazy. When other people are up spelling, I try to spell the word in my head too, and when I get it wrong and they get it right, I think, oh no!”
A competitor at heart, Saurish said spelling bees have an element of unpredictability that make them different than sports. “With basketball, I feel like I know what I expect is going to happen next, but in the bee, you don’t know what word you’re going to get, so it’s a bit more nerve-wracking. You just have to be ready.”
Best of luck, Saurish!