E-x-u-b-e-r-a-n-t, ‘Exuberant’!


Without a break to soothe her nerves, Eagle View fifth-grader Jennifer Ko, 11, beat 22 competitors to become the champion of the first annual Fairfax County Spelling Bee.
In the initial rounds, competitors dropped like flies, while pronouncer Blake Giddens launched words at the students, used them in sentences, revealed the country of origin and defined such stumpers as “xylophone,” “capitulation” and “liverwurst.”

Giddens’ stony expression is the result of years of experience on the spelling bee circuit, which led to his first-place victory at the 1983 Scripps National Spelling Bee (his winning word was “Purim,” the Jewish holiday).

At the end of the sixth round, the last hope for the boys, Daniel Rosales, a Stone Middle School seventh-grader, fell, leaving four girls on stage, the empty seats around them the only evidence of the spelling carnage that had taken out their opponents.

But it was the battle between three students that kept audience members at attention, hands clenched, and stirred a hum in the Oakton High School lecture hall.

In the end, Lauren Huang, a sixth-grader from Oak Hill Elementary School, and Snigdha Srivastava, a fifth-grader from Navy Elementary School, faced off against Ko.

At one point in the competition, Giddens challenged Srivastava to spell “alcohol.”

“A-l-c-o-h-o-l,” she said.

Judges Jack Dale, Fairfax County Public Schools superintendent; Kathy Smith, Fairfax County School Board vice chair; and Michele Menapace, Fairfax County Council of PTAs president, looked at each other and after a few moments nodded. It was agreed. Srivastava had spelled “alcohol” correctly, perhaps the only time the judges would nod at the mention of the word in front of a fifth-grader.

For 15 rounds, each of the three had not missed a step.

Srivastava sat at the edge of her chair, her back rigid and knees bouncing. Ko hung her head low, her hands in her lap, perhaps reserving her energy. When Huang correctly spelled “babushka,” Srivastava rose and waited at the microphone for the word from Giddens.

“The word is ‘confetti,'” Giddens said.

“C-o-n-f-e-t-t-y,” she said, and the judges looked at each other and shook their heads. Smith sounded the bell. Confetti is spelled with an “i.”

And then it was Ko’s turn. She rattled off “credenza.” Huang fell with “paprika.”

According to National Spelling Bee rules, Ko would have to finish the round with “greengage” and then spell her word correctly in the next round.

She did so.

“Exuberant” was the word, and, after it was spelled correctly, the word set the tone for the cheers and claps from the crowd.

Breathless, Ko accepted her championship trophy from Steve Cahill, executive editor of The Fairfax County Times. The Times was the event’s primary sponsor, with support from Don Beyer Volvo, Wegmans, Score Educational Centers, and the Fairfax County Council of PTAs.

Ko’s best subject is math, she said. She wants to be a teacher when she grows up.

“I didn’t think I was going to win, because, before this, in our school spelling bee, I got two words wrong,” she said.

Ko’s mother, Kyung-yun Ko Park, said her daughter is always reading. “At dinner, at home, she never puts books down.”

Ko said her favorite book is “Inkheart,” a fantasy novel by Cornelia Funk.

Ko and her family moved to the United States last year from New Zealand. It is her first year living in the United States. Her parents are natives of South Korea.

“We never knew what a spelling bee was,” Ko’s mother said.

Ko and her family will be on national television as she advances to the Scripps National Spelling Bee on May 30-31 in Washington, D.C.

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