Each frosty morning Kim Leaird drove her son Sam Fetters to the bus stop this winter, she drilled him with spelling words, all in preparation for the Martha’s Vineyard Schools Spelling Bee on March 25 and his ultimate goal: to compete in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, held outside Washington, D.C., last week.
The hard work paid off for Sam, a sixth grader at the West Tisbury School. With a smile on his face and speaking in a clear, strong voice without hesitation, Sam correctly spelled the word “curriculum” to win the Vineyard spelling bee on March 28.
As it has for the past 25 years, The Martha’s Vineyard Times sponsored the local Island Bee, and paid for Sam to travel to Washington and participate in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, held at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center.
On the national stage, Sam faced three preliminary rounds, made up of a multiple-choice written test and two rounds of oral spelling. He aced both spelling words onstage, “acetaminophen” and “estrangement.”
Scoring is based on a compilation of the three competitions, and Sam ended up 46th out of 285 spellers. He admitted the written test was his downfall, with spelling words like “hematorrhachis” (a profuse discharge of blood into the spinal canal) and “lachsschinken” (a boned double loin of pork that is rolled, mild-cured, slightly smoked, and pressed into a casing).
“Trust me, it’s very tense,” Sam said after he returned home to the Vineyard. “It’s very tense and it’s very nerve-wracking to be on stage. But it’s just really fun, because you get to see if you spelled it right or if you hear the dreaded ‘bing!’”
Ms. Leaird had planned to accompany Sam to the national spelling bee, but her father, John Leaird, died the day Sam headed to the capital. He made the flight alone, with his grandmother, Pam Turner, who lives in Silver Spring, Md., chaperoning him during the week.
“My mother changed all of her plans for the week to be with him,” a grateful Ms. Leaird said. “And the Times covered everything — the flight, hotel, ferry shuttle — everything.”
Ms. Turner said the experience was something she’ll never forget. “I thought it was wonderful. It was super well-organized, and they were encouraged from day one as winners,” Ms. Turner said. “I was thrilled for Sam, and I will treasure this always. We live far apart, and this was really very special. I don’t think a smile left his face the whole time.”
The spellers were able to enjoy some down time, with a trip to the zoo and other planned outings, as well as plenty of time taking in all the hotel had to offer. “It’s beautiful!” he said. “We’d hang out when we had down time. I made friends from places as far away as Texas and Ohio.”
Although his mother was unable to attend the national spelling bee, she was delighted that Sam made it.
Sam’s principal, Donna Lowell-Bettencourt, was thrilled to have this year’s winner come from her school.
“It’s been a long time since someone from West Tisbury School won,” Ms. Lowell-Bettencourt said. “Sam worked very hard, practicing and practicing. It was good for the other kids to see him reach his goal.”
Sam’s classmates made cards wishing him luck before he left, and more cards congratulating him when he returned home. “They told him he was already a winner,” Ms. Lowell-Bettencourt said.
Sam has some advice for students who want to take a shot at winning the national spelling bee. “For those who want to do this, study hard,” Sam said. And he said he couldn’t have gotten there without a little help from his friends.
“I just want to thank all of my friends, especially my mom, my brother, and my dad, and my friends Isaac and Jack, Peter Forrester, and my grandmother, who helped make my stay at the nationals happen, and my ELA teacher, Skye Sonneborn.”
Sam’s goal for next year: winning the Island Bee and going back to Washington for the nationals.
Winners of the 2016 Scripps National Spelling Bee were co-champions Nihar Janga, 11, from Austin, Texas, and Jairam Hathwar, 13, from Corning, N.Y.