A spelling bee journey: Hard work, nerves and a trip to D.C.

Snehaa Ganesh Kumar, an 8th grader from Folsom Middle School, won the California Central Valley Spelling Bee in March 2016 and went to the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
Snehaa Ganesh Kumar, an 8th grader from Folsom Middle School, won the California Central Valley Spelling Bee in March 2016 and went to the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Sacramento Bee file

P-R-O-C-H-O-O-S. It means a tall slender ancient Greek jug. I had to spell this word in front of millions of people live on ESPN at the Scripps National Spelling Bee last year.

When I reminisce about my spelling bee journey, I am reminded of all the hard work that I put in and how sweet it felt to be rewarded.

Some kids play soccer. Others play chess. For me, competing in spelling bees is important because I am passionate about linguistics and it helps me improve my vocabulary.

My journey started in kindergarten, when I won second place in the school competing against fifth graders. My parents realized I had a penchant for spelling. I won in third grade on my first try and went to my first regionals. I was the youngest and the center of attention. I was clenching my dad’s hand and asking him why everyone was staring at me. When I got on stage, I was scared, but managed it.

When I misspelled my second word, I was extremely upset for the next few days. That failure, however, pushed me to work harder. The next year, I placed fifth at the regionals. In 2015, I reached my goal: I won the regional bee and went to nationals in Washington, D.C.

We all gathered in a magnificent ballroom where Paige Kimble, the National Spelling Bee director, explained the schedule for the week and how we were each one in a million. The next day was a barbecue. Activities included sand art, face painting and dancing. It helped calm my nerves down.

Day 1 of competition started with the preliminaries. I had been watching Jacques Bailly pronounce words at nationals since first grade, so it was a dream come true to see him in person. I had seen the spelling stage on TV, but it was a radically different experience to be there. As I approached the microphone for my first word, I took a deep breath and got ready.

“Your word is, ‘picaresque,’ ” Bailly said. The word was familiar. I asked for all the information, and spelled it correctly. When the results were announced the next day and I had made it to the semifinals, I was in ecstasy. But I hardly had time to breathe. I had to rush to the semifinals test. It was hard, but I advanced to finals – the top 10.

Finally, the big day was here. All the finalists had a special interview with ESPN, and a professional hair and makeup session. I felt like a celebrity. I stepped on stage, spelled my first two words right, but misspelled my third. That placed me fourth. I was disappointed but thankful I had another year to try again.

The week, however, wasn’t over yet. The next day, we toured Washington and had an awards banquet. Bailly gave a speech honoring our hard work. I felt special.

I returned home with the determination to go back next year and do better. I made it back to nationals in 2016, and proudly ended my spelling bee career as runner-up with the satisfaction that I represented Folsom the best I could.

I will be there Thursday night for the 2017 nationals as a spectator, encouraging my friends and other students.

Snehaa Ganesh Kumar will be a sophomore at Vista Del Lago High School in Folsom and coaches spellers at Hexco Academic.