When the top three contenders of the 78th Annual Miami Herald Spelling Bee — one of whom was competing for her fourth straight title — were vying for first place on Tuesday afternoon, the audience dwindled to a couple dozen.
Among those watching: Zion Mendez, a fourth-grader with a mane of curls. Zion, 10, had been eliminated in the first round after the written spelling test, but he and his family stayed until the end, clapping and giggling, as other students spelled out words like “gynarchy” and “taupe.” As he watched the spellers, an interpreter, Gigi Gonzalez, translated the letters into American Sign Language.
Zion, like his parents and two of his siblings, is Deaf with a capital D –– meaning he is “culturally deaf,” or strongly identifies with his deafness (he and his sister explained by demonstrating the deaf power sign –– a raised fist and a covered ear). He was the only deaf student to compete in this year’s Miami-Dade spelling bee.
A student at Mae M. Walters Elementary in Hialeah, Zion only started competitive spelling last year: “I studied and I got really into it. I started thinking I wanted to really go for it.”
As the Mendez family watched the competition at Jungle Island, Vasundara Govindarajan, 14, Sabrina Soto, 14, and Hudson Kaplan, 11, jockeyed for the top prize. They cycled through words like “cumbrous” (a synonym for cumbersome), “laterigrade” (running sideways), and “medlar” (a winter fruit) –– terms which, judging by the looks on their faces, many of the adults in the room didn’t know.
In the 12th round, with the word “escadrille” –– a French squadron of aircraft –– Vasundara was named the 78th Miami Herald Spelling Bee champion, in the Miami-Dade competition. The Broward competition will be Tuesday, March 13, at the Signature Grand in Davie.
Vasundara, with her pigtail braids and computer-like mind, will compete in the 91st Scripps National Spelling Bee in May.
Few were surprised Vasundara, an eighth-grader at Frank C. Martin International K-8 Center in southwest Miami-Dade, took home first place –– she’s Miami’s reigning champion. In fact, this is her fourth consecutive win in the Miami-Dade Bee.
The 2018 Scripps National Spelling Bee will be her third national competition. In her first, she placed 22nd in the nation. In her second, she placed 44th.
Vasundara said none of the words made her very nervous. Upon hearing each new word, she requested the word’s etymological roots, parts of speech and pronunciation, before writing out each letter in her palm. She answered slowly, keeping her hands tucked in the pockets of her hoodie.
Vasundara got into spelling by way of her older brother, Vaidya, who also went to nationals. In 2010, he tied for ninth place. In 2012, he finished 10th.
Seeing her brother come so close –– and lose it on the word “polynee” (a French almond tart) –– inspired Vasundara to pick up where her brother left off.
The stakes are high for Vasundara this year. Now that she’s in eighth grade, it is her last year to compete. The Bee is for elementary and middle school students.
Depending on her homework load, Vasundara tries to study as much as possible.
“I just read the dictionary,” she said. At this point, she has read the whole thing cover to cover “a couple times probably.”
The second place prize went to Sabrina, an eighth-grader at Carrollton School of the Sacred Heart in Coconut Grove. Hudson, the youngest of the three, is a fifth-grader at Alexander Montessori School. He placed third.