Stuart places third at state spelling bee contest
March 28, 2019
Sixth-grader Willa Stuart is a formidable competitor. During lunchtime at Haines School Willa told me that she memorized 1,100 words for the Alaska State Spelling Bee, somewhat apathetically, while nibbling on chicken fingers.
Every day last week from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. more than 180 kids from across Alaska in third through eighth grade gathered in the Anchorage Center for the Performing Arts to test their spelling skills.
Even though last week Willa tied for third-place, the idea of winning isn’t what drives her. “The first year I didn’t really wanna do it,” she said. She only did it because her mom convinced her to. Since then, Willa has gotten hooked on Bees—she has participated in four spelling bees in Haines and three statewide.
“It’s just nice to be around kids like me who like to do stuff like that,” said Willa.
With all 180 kids assembled on stage, participants were asked to spell a selection of “on-list” words, words that they had studied, and then after a few rounds they were asked “off-list” words, words chosen at random from the Merriam Webster dictionary.
“My first ‘on-list’ word was ‘character,’” said Willa, “Then ‘hygiene,’ and then ‘dachshund.” The hardest word she had was ‘purveyor,’ she said. The eighth-grade boy who got first-place won by spelling ‘souffle.’
Hearing these words, I then made the terrible decision of asking a state spelling bee whiz to give me a word to spell. Gleefully, Willa said something that sounded phonetically like ‘may-saunt.’ She informed me that it was one of her ‘Dutch challenge words.’
“Okay,” I began, “M-A-I…”
I was already wrong. “It’s ‘m-u-i-s-h-o-n-d,” Willa said.
Merriam Webster defines this word as, “either of two southern African weasels… that emit a fetid odor when disturbed.”
Despite her confident, butterfly-t-shirt exterior, Willa admitted that at the start of the Bee she was very nervous. “I don’t know why,” she said, “because I knew the list better. But once I got into the ‘off-list’ words I wasn’t as nervous because I knew I could get out at any time.”
Even at 12-years-old, Willa understands herself well enough to know that her anxiety was wrapped in the part of her performance she could control. When she was no longer in control of the words they quizzed her with, Willa was okay with whatever happened.
Willa said her mom encouraged her to make it to the top ten this year, “but I didn’t think that that was possible.”
I asked Willa’s mom, Jila Stuart, did she think that was possible?
“Honestly,” said Stuart, “I thought it was possible but not likely.” This made Willa laugh. “I always knew she could do it!” amended Stuart, “It’s just so hard, you never know what word you’re going to get.”