During an ideal spelling bee, the absolute best speller is determined, and wins; luck comes into play as minimally as possible. This year, like last year, a single best speller could not be determined, but the best two spellers undoubtedly could. Vanya Shivashankar and Gokul Venkatachalam, both seen as favorites this year, quickly rose to the top during the finals, and stayed there for the last ten rounds of the bee, answering each other with correct spellings fired like arrows that always hit the bullseye. Bouquetiere? No problem.Cypseline? Done. Urgrund? No problem. Pyrrhuloxia. Zimocca. Sprachgefühl. The words kept coming, and Vanya and Gokul knocked them down with elan and alacrity. Vanya was, without question, the more measured of the two, sticking to a routine of asking questions that served her perfectly through the whole bee. Gokul, on the other hand, sometimes dispensed with formalities, and if he knew the word, he would spell it with fewer questions asked. Indeed, on the bee-ending nunatak, he didn’t ask a single question, and flung out the word’s seven letters with the impact of a mic drop. (Kids, this was a professional speller. Don’t try that at home.)

Despite Vanya and Gokul’s indisputable reign as this year’s champions, all ten finalists were deserving of their lofty titles. Sylvie Lamontagne, a determined seventh-grader from Lakewood, Colorado, was unfortunately the first eliminated, stunned into submission by the tricky cerastes. Despite giving the word a game try, she rattled off her spelling and immediately said, “That’s not right,” before head judge Mary Brooks could confirm her thought with the dreaded bell. Immediately after that came a word from a truly left-of-center language: the Czech villain hacek, downing Siyona Mishra from Orlando, Florida. (That’s pronounced “HAH-check,” in case you were wondering.) The next speller down was Kentuckian Paul Keaton, who seemed to exemplify grace under pressure and the saying “hold on tightly, let go lightly.” Despite obviously having devoted hours of time and effort to his studies, he bowed out on poikilitic with not a hint of regret on his face and an admirable sense of pride.

But one speller would have taken the title of Mr. Congeniality if such awards were given. Dev Jaiswal, an 8th grader from Louisville, Mississippi, had charmed the audience throughout the bee with a sweet smile, impeccable fashion sense (bowties, anyone?), a brilliant mind (he was ranked first going into the semifinals and the finals), and unsurpassed amicability. Somehow, he maneuvered his way through the seventh round with an incredible, dramatic guess at bacchius, then sailed through the eighth with a flawless analysis of gnathostome. He was unfortunately felled in the ninth round by iridocyclitis. To a roaring standing ovation, he saluted the crowd before walking offstage and being swarmed by fans. It was easy to get the sense that the world would be improved immeasurably with the presence of more people like Dev Jaiswal.

Or any of the spellers, really. As I’ve mentioned before, the excitement of Bee Week is contagious, and you can’t help but be swept up in optimism about the future when you’re surrounded by so much
evidence of talent, hard work, and dedication.