The second annual Duke Regional Spelling Bee opened at 9 a.m. on Saturday, March 12 with 56 champion spellers seated in rows on the stage of Page Auditorium, their families, teachers and principals beaming up from below.
“Speller No. 1, from A.L. Stanback Middle, your word is ‘sultan,'” opened Judith Ruderman, Duke professor in English, retired vice provost, and for the second year in a row, pronouncer for the regional bee.
Naomi Braswell spelled “sultan” quickly and easily, yielding the microphone to her 55 competitors who one by one attempted words like “gunnysack” and “caboose.”
Twenty-five spellers were eliminated in Round One. More than 15 rounds later, only two spellers remained: Jesus Ayala Lara of Chewning Middle School in Durham, and Simisola Gbadegesin, of Durham School of the Arts. Ruderman gave them words like peloton, fennec, baedeker, hoomalili, and insulberg, all spelled quickly and correctly.
Then Gbadegesin missed “muishond.” If Ayala got the next word, he would win the regional bee and an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington, D.C. to compete in the Scripps National Spelling Bee in June.
Once he heard the language of origin, he didn’t even pause. “Schottische. S-c-h-o-t-t-i-s-c-h-e. Schottische.”
Ruderman confirmed the spelling and the audience erupted into applause.
The Office of Durham and Regional Affairs began sponsoring the regional bee in 2010, the first time in recent memory that elementary and middle school students in Durham and Orange counties had the chance to compete for a spot in the Scripps National Spelling Bee. The 2010 regional winner was Jessia Connelly of Orange Charter School.
This year, every public elementary and middle school in Durham sent a champion speller to the regional bee. Other spellers came from Orange County Schools, with a few from local charter and private schools.
Though Chewning Principal Jim Key knew that all 56 spellers were champions, he said he never doubted that Ayala would win.
“He’s just a tremendous, tremendous person and student,” Key said. “He’s one of the best students I’ve had, in 27 years.”
After congratulating Gbadegesin for her title of Regional Runner-Up, Vice President for Durham and Regional Affairs Phail Wynn Jr. presented Ayala with his prizes and asked what he most looked forward to about visiting the nation’s capitol for the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
Ayala thought about it. “I think it’s really exciting that I might be on TV.”