In three months, students from across the country will compete for the coveted golden winner’s cup at the 2018 Scripps National Spelling Bee championship. Among the talented spellers will be a seventh-grader from Jamaica.
On Wednesday, 11-year-old Nathaniel Stone became Jamaica’s 2018 spelling champion. In May, he will travel to Washington, D.C., carrying with him the hopes of a nation that remains the only non-U.S. country or territory to ever win the Scripps National Spelling Bee. (Although most of the competitors are from the U.S., the program was extended to include students from other countries such as Canada, Ghana, Japan, Jamaica and Mexico in recent years.)
The intense confidence the seventh-grader displayed onstage yesterday rendered his victory almost anticlimactic. After 14 parish champions occupied the stage in Kingston for some six hours, Stone’s final face-off against Daniel Williams ended quickly. Williams, an eighth-grader from St. James Parish, who sometimes practices by singing the words, misspelled “platitudinarian.” Stone calmly recited each letter of “orotund,” strode off the stage and hugged his dad.
It was Nathaniel Stone’s day. He adopted the on-his-game method of answering his questions as he asked them: “Is this a Latin word?” “Is it an adjective?” Even the one word he missed didn’t end up counting against him: He spelled “xylem” with a “u,” but a challenge about the word’s misleading pronunciation was accepted and one of his two handicaps restored. (Jamaican spellers earn handicaps in preliminary rounds that allow them to miss words in the finals without being eliminated.)
Afterward, Stone said, “To succeed you have to believe in something so much that it becomes a reality. I believe in myself.” The only indication that he might’ve been overcome by the moment was when one of the hosts asked him the meaning of his winning word and he replied, “I don’t know.”
The intimate TV studio crowd immediately took to Rajive Campbell, who approached the microphone each round as if roused from a nap. The 12-year-old from St. Jago High School, bigger and taller than his peers onstage, was in constant nervous slow motion, sleepily resting his cheek on his palm, rubbing his scalp and plumbing his pockets as he decoded words. He sighed his way to a fourth-place finish.
Though Jamaica is a Caribbean island smaller than Connecticut, the larger world entered the room on at least two occasions, eliciting laughter from the audience. When two spellers asked Dr. Clive Lai, the spellmaster, to use words in sentences, he obliged with references to the U.S. president, who has claimed since he took office that the press is trying to “calumniate” him, and who also “puts his own stamp on ‘gaucherie.’ “
It is the second consecutive year that a speller from Clarendon Parish’s Glenmuir High School is the Jamaican champion. Both were coached by Errol Campbell, a teacher at Glenmuir who might be the source of some of Stone’s confidence. As a promotional tool, the Jamaica Gleaner, which oversees the bee, produces brief biographical videos about each speller. In Stone’s, the soft-spoken Campbell declares, “I know that we are going to win.”
Bee fever hit the island nation in 1998, when 12-year-old Jamaican Jody-Anne Maxwell became the only non-American speller to win Scripps. Before Usain Bolt sprinted into Jamaican headlines, Ebony magazine wrote that upon her return home, Maxwell “received the kind of welcome reserved for soccer stars and reggae singers.”
Behind Jamaica’s spelling excellence is a single man: Reverend Glen Archer. The high school teacher, described by the executive director of Scripps as “the greatest spelling coach of a generation,” coached 25 Jamaican national spelling champions between 1986 and 2014; they set up perennial shop in the late rounds at Scripps. Archer died in 2015. (This Sports Illustrated story tells of the efforts, by many, to fill his revered shoes.)
The Scripps National Spelling Bee takes place May 27 to May 31 in Washington, D.C.