At Spelling Bee, Winning With Composure

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By Garrett Downing Staff Writer
Sunday, March 9, 2008

As Santos DeBarros walked off the stage Thursday night at the 26th annual Loudoun County Spelling Bee, something happened for the first time in his life.

Somebody asked for his autograph.

"I've never had that happen before," said Santos, 12, who lives in Waterford. "It is a little different."

It was the only time all night that he was caught off guard. The home-schooled seventh-grader cruised through five rounds and knocked off 88 spellers before taking home first place by correctly spelling "psychokinesis," which means using the power of the mind to move or distort objects.

With the win, he secured a spot in the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee on May 29 and 30 in the District. He also took home a bag of prizes, including a $20 gift card, a Merriam-Webster collegiate dictionary and a savings bond.

"This is probably the first time I have ever won anything major," Santos said. "I'm pretty excited."

He participated in the bee two years ago as a fifth-grader, advancing to the fourth round. That experience -- and time spent studying random pages of the dictionary -- helped him keep a cool demeanor in a crowd of anxious competitors, he said.

Some students tapped their feet and bit their nails to keep busy as they waited their turn to approach the microphone.

"It was very tense," Santos said. "I didn't know what was going to happen."

The Loudoun spelling bee is open to county public, private and home-schooled students in grades five through eight. To qualify, contestants must win a competition at their school. Home-schoolers must win a bee sponsored by their local association.

Sean Michael Bills, a fifth-grader from Emerick Elementary School, took second place. In third place was Meaghan Rachal, an eighth-grader at Belmont Ridge Middle School.

"I'm glad I came in second," Sean said. "It definitely made me feel good, and it was just fun being in there."

The first-place finish for Santos makes him the first home-schooled student to win the county bee since 2005. The semifinals of the national competition are shown on ESPN, and the finals are broadcast on ABC.

The moderator was Paul Vickers, Mill Run Elementary School principal. Judges were Sherri Simmons, a dean at Stone Hill Middle School; Elizabeth Dotur, a retired principal and coordinator of the first six county bees; Lina Hashem, a copy editor at the Loudoun Times-Mirror; and Elizabeth Greenblatt, a secretary at Rolling Ridge Elementary School and mother of the 1984 national bee winner.

The spelling bee, held at Stone Bridge High School, was sponsored by the Loudoun Times-Mirror.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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