Spelling Your Way to the Top

Saketh Sundar is entering 7th grade at Mayfield Woods Middle School. Sundar is active at his school, participating in the orchestra, student government association, and news, film, coding and debate clubs. Sundar participated in the 2016 and 2017 Scripps National Spelling Bee, placing 12th this year.

Melissa ShindelMelissa Shindel has been an educator for more than 20 years and a principal for eight. She is currently the principal at Mayfield Woods Middle School. Shindel is the past president of the Maryland Association of Secondary School Principals (MASSP) and currently serves as a member of the MASSP board.  

Shindel partnered with Sundar to blog about his spelling bee journey. By making the top 15 nationally, Sundar went farther than any other Howard County student in the history of the competition.

Each year, millions of students from around the world participate in their school or community spelling bee. Whether large or small, every bee is full of suspense and excitement.

In Howard County, every school or organization sends its top speller and runner-up to the Howard County Library System (HCLS) Spelling Bee. Each year, after hours of competition that usually end close to midnight, the winner of the HCLS bee is announced and that student advances to the Scripps National Spelling Bee. l know this pattern well. As principal in two different schools, I have had students advance to the Scripps bee four times, and each time it was equally as nerve-wracking and exciting. For the past two years, the HCLS winner has been Saketh Sundar.

Saketh’s spelling bee journey began at Bellows Spring Elementary School, where he remembers: “I always enjoyed spelling and was enthusiastic to compete in spelling bees. I started out in 4th grade. My mom and I spent 30 minutes every day going over the words. I won my class spelling bee and advanced to the school bee. There, I got words I had studied and won. For the county bee though, I bowed out on the word ‘blight’ which befittingly means ‘something that frustrates one’s plans or withers one’s hopes.’ That first blight of my spelling bee career is what ignited the spark that took me to the national bee.”

As a 5th grader, Saketh worked even harder. He studied and practiced more often, won the competition in his school, and moved on to the HCLS bee. He recalls being on stage in the late hours, and he was ecstatic to hear the pronouncer say, “We have a winner.” This had been his goal since he was younger, and he was thrilled to be moving on to the national competition.

In the Scripps national bee, the preliminary round includes not only spelling words on stage, but also taking a spelling and vocabulary test. No more than the top 50 spellers move on to the final round. During his first visit to Scripps, Saketh did not qualify for finals. He recalls: “This experience made me mentally tough, and I set my goal that the next year I would make the finals.” And that’s just what he did.

As a 6th grader at the national spelling bee, Saketh did well on both the written and oral portions of the preliminaries. On the next day of competition, after correctly spelling both onstage words, Saketh heard his name during the announcement of finalists. Instead of celebrating, he went to bed. A huge day awaited him.

On June 1, Saketh participated in four rounds of spelling during the day. I can remember the excitement at Mayfield Woods. The bee was televised on ESPN2, and we made it available in classrooms, so students could watch Saketh spell. Staff and students could be heard cheering in the hallways each time Saketh spelled a word correctly. Community members, parents and local businesses contacted the school or posted their support on social media. It was a truly unique and magical experience. In a matter of days, Saketh Sundar became a hometown hero.

By the end of round seven, Saketh became a primetime finalist, and this hometown hero was now an ESPN star. He was interviewed by and highlighted on ESPN, and tweeted by Amanda Carey, associate producer for the NFL. Carey mentioned Saketh’s favorite athlete, the Ravens’ Justin Tucker, who in turn tweeted, “I know who I’m rooting for this #SpellingBee! Let’s go Saketh!!”

Finally, it was time for the nationally televised primetime finals. I was there with Saketh’s parents, and everyone in the studio audience was buzzing with excitement as ESPN commentators were live in the room. Unfortunately, Saketh spelled his first word incorrectly. Saketh said, “My mind blanked. I knew most of the words following my elimination and was frustrated. But then I realized I still have two more years. This experience taught me a few life lessons like how to handle pressure, be optimistic and accept failure gracefully.”

Saketh does have two more years to compete, and we suspect we will see him again on ESPN primetime.

Saketh said, “This opportunity and experience would not be possible without HCLS and their sponsors. I would like to take this opportunity to thank HCLS, HCPSS, my parents, my school principal, and others for their support and encouragement!”

Photo credit: Mark Bowen/Scripps National Spelling Bee.