That’s what 14-year-old Zaila Avant-garde was Thursday night – amazing. Also “astounding,” “incredible,” and “victorious.” She became the first African American competitor to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee, and the second Black champion in the bee’s 96-year history.
Her winning word was “murraya,” a genus of tropical trees. She got it right and then twirled happily in a rain of celebratory confetti.
Spelling is not Zaila’s only talent. She’s a world-class basketball dribbler. She can divide four-digit numbers by two-digit numbers in her head.
But the national spelling bee final is full of talented teens and tweens. That may be its defining characteristic – it’s the Super Bowl of kids who read the dictionary, the Olympics of young Scrabble fans. Like the Olympics, it is both a competition and an opportunity for participants to make friends and form a community with like-minded people.
Bee organizers have long fostered this association with group activities. Entrants have received official autograph books and been encouraged to collect as many signatures as they can, given that some among them may grow up to be celebrities.
Due to the pandemic, this year’s bee was more limited. But many participants were happy it was held at all, after cancellation in 2020.
“Thank you so much for this opportunity. ... We really needed the spelling bee this year,” said Avani Joshi, an Illinois teen, after elimination on the word “gewgaw.”