The 284 kids competing in this year’s Scripps National Spelling Bee in Oxon Hill, Maryland, got their first opportunity to approach the microphone on Wednesday — and to hear the dreaded bell that signals an incorrect spelling. At the end of Wednesday’s onstage rounds, the field was cut to 45 spellers for Thursday’s finals.
The youngest was J.J. Chen of Bethesda, Maryland. He got a laugh from the audience during the morning round of spelling when he greeted Jacques Bailly, the chief pronouncer for the competition. Many of J.J.’s fellow contestants tried to stump Bailey by saying hello in a foreign language he didn’t know.
But 10-year-old J.J. took pop star Adele as his inspiration for the funniest greeting of the day.
“Hello,” J.J. said.
“Hello,” Bailly said.
“It’s me,” J.J. deadpanned, quoting from the singer’s hit song.
Later, J.J., who is a fifth-grader at Bradley Hills Elementary School, said he came up with the idea when he was bored onstage. The first round was dull, he said, because he’d memorized all the words on the list.
“In the morning, I counted the number of times I clapped,” he said. “This afternoon, since they were surprise words, it was more interesting.”
J.J.’s parents, James and Yuesha Chen, said their son showed a gift for language at an early age and could spell “transportation” at age 3.
“At day care, [when] his friends had trouble reading things, they went to J.J.,” James Chen said.
J.J. and 44 others will begin the final rounds Thursday. They will face more challenging words than in years past. Scripps changed the rules to make the 89th annual bee more difficult after the competition ended in a tie for two straight years.
The winner takes home more than $40,000 in cash and prizes.