Freshman Samhita Kumar waits for her word at the Scripps National Spelling Bee in 2018 in Washington, D.C. (Photo courtesy of Kumar)

‘Self-driven’ freshman reaches three national spelling bees

Competing against millions of other students nationwide for three straight years, freshman Samhita Kumar advanced to three Scripps national spelling bees from 2017 to 2019.

“Making it to nationals is always terrifying, but also really exciting,” Kumar said. “I got to travel to Washington, D.C., and perform live on national TV — it made me feel like a mini-celebrity! Being on TV was really exciting but also really intimidating.  Over the years, I made a lot of new friends, and the experience was always fantastic.”

The path to the Scripps National Spelling Bee starts in November with a classroom spelling bee. Teachers register their schools with Scripps and decide how they want to run their class bees. Participants range from kindergarten to eighth grade and have to be under 15 years old. Each classroom winner advances to the school-wide bee, and the subsequent victor progresses to a regional bee.

In Sacramento, a written test narrows the school winners to 60 to compete in the regional bee. Its winner advances to the Central Valley Spelling Bee among 13 counties, whose winner moves on to the nationals.

Each year, 11 million students participate in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, according to CNN. At nationals, Kumar’s highest placement was in 2017, when she reached the semifinals with 40 to 50 others and placed 18th.

“It was probably one of my most memorable moments,” Kumar said. “Making it to the semifinals was really exciting.”

Not only did Kumar develop her spelling skills through the experience, she also made new friends, which she said was one of her favorite parts of making it to the nationals.

“Everyone I met was always so nice, and I even keep in touch with some of them today!” she said.

Kumar fell under the spell of these competitions by watching her older brother compete when she was younger. Her brother, who is five years older than Samhita, never made it to the nationals. 

“I really enjoyed them, and I started getting good at them, so I just kept going,” she said.

Kumar’s father, Nandakumar Natarajan, said Samhita’s and her brother’s love of spelling came from reading at a young age.

“We read a lot to Samhita and her brother when they were toddlers,” he said. “Samhita’s brother, Nikhilesh, started reading around age 3 and would read multiple books per week. One day, we saw flyers for a local spelling bee competition. He signed up for the competition and won! He participated in spelling bees from (that) point all the way up through middle school.”

He said Samhita used to follow him and her brother to the library and the spelling bees.

“Samhita signed up the first year she was eligible and did very well,” he said. “When Samhita and her brother were in elementary school, they competed in spelling bees with minimal amounts of preparation.”

However, as Samhita and Nikhilesh reached middle school, their parents encouraged them to invest time in preparing for the bees, according to her father.

“They really started enjoying competing, and this was a significant extracurricular activity for them,” Natarajan said. “We would quiz them on words prior to the competition, but it was mostly self-driven, especially with Samhita.”

According to Kumar, the intensity of the Scripps National Spelling Bee can cause some participants to change their lives in the pursuit of higher placements.

Some parents even withdraw their children from school to focus on spelling.

However, Kumar’s parents “never considered taking them out of school,” Natarajan said.

Kumar said she took a different approach.

“I ended up having to do lots of work over summers,” Kumar said. “My teachers were also always really flexible, and they helped me reschedule any conflicting events.” 

For Kumar, the nationals were usually during her finals week, but her teachers allowed her to schedule her finals either before or after the spelling bee, she said.

Kumar didn’t spell just to make it to the nationals; Kumar said she enjoys studying words.

“Words are extremely fascinating,” Kumar said. “When you look at why they’re there and why they’re the way they are, it’s really interesting. There are so many languages that have influenced English, and they all make the words fit together and work the way they do. It’s fascinating that we talk the way we do.”

Although Kumar aged out of spelling bees this year, she said attending the nationals gave her essential academic skills.

“Spelling really teaches you how to study efficiently,” she said. “It helps with long-term studying; otherwise, it’s just memorizing really boring things. It helped me learn a large amount of information in a short amount of time, even when it wasn’t the most interesting.”

Still, aging out of spelling bees has left a hole in her life.

“It was always so much fun,” she said. “Now I don’t have as much to do with my time. I miss studying for spelling because I actually really enjoyed it.”

Kumar recently started a Country Day quiz bowl team and hopes it fills the void.

By Miles Morrow

Originally published in the Nov. 12 edition of the Octagon.

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