Neil Maes, 11, a hearing-impaired contestant in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, during word study Tuesday with his parents at National Harbor, Md. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

As he walked out of his elementary school last week, fifth-grader Neil Maes heard the clapping from his fellow students lining both sides of the hallways. He heard them cheer and yell his name, and he heard them wish him luck as he headed off to compete in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, which starts Wednesday morning at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Md.

That the shy 11-year-old from Belton, S.C., can hear anything at all is a testament to technology, to a never-quit attitude and to faith, say his parents, Christy, a preschool teacher, and Peter, an aircraft mechanic.

The Maeses, who found out their son was severely hearing-impaired just days after he was born, have been working nonstop since then to help him have hearing that’s as close to normal as possible.

When the couple learned that their son couldn’t hear, they were in shock.

“It was not something we were prepared for,” Christy Maes said Tuesday afternoon at the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Georgetown. The family was at the association’s headquarters to talk about the medical advances in hearing technology, including cochlear implants, that have allowed Neil not only to hear but to take part fully in the exceedingly competitive annual spelling showdown.

After working through the initial emotions that accompanied the diagnosis of their son’s hearing, Christy and Pete immediately began scheduling appointments with audiologists and researching methods to help their son experience the same sounds they savored.

“We wanted Neil to hear the birds, the water running, the winds in the trees,” his mother said, fighting back tears. “My goal was for him to reach his potential, no matter what it was. It turned out to be pretty good.”


Neil Maes readies for the National Spelling Bee with his parents, Peter and Christy. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

Neil smiles as he listens to his mom talk and tell stories about how he started speech therapy as a 6-month-old and had his first implant at 11 months. His ability to speak clearly and hear as well as he does is not just a result of medical advances, but of the fierce determination he and his parents have shown to make the technology work for them.

After a while, though, the conversation about the technology and the speech therapy grows a little dull for Neil, who is on his first trip to Washington and is eager to do some sightseeing and ride the Ferris wheel at National Harbor, near where the spelling competition is being held. His smile returns as the conversation shifts to his favorite books — the “Narnia” series, the “Warriors” cat stories — his favorite basketball player, Larry Bird, and to shooting hoops, which consumes much of the time he doesn’t spend reading or studying spelling words.

When asked if he’s the best player on his basketball team, a sly grin crosses his face.

“Is anyone else going to read this?” he asks.

Kerry Anderson is Neil’s teacher at Belton Elementary, where he is a “dream student” whose nose is always in a book and who is friends with everyone. “I don’t think there is anything that is impossible for Neil,” she says.

As a third-grader, Neil entered the school spelling bee on a bit of a lark. After winning his grade bee, he went on and won in the school-wide competition. At the regionals that year, he came in second place. His mother loves to tell the story that after losing that year, Neil said that one of his goals was to win the regional competition. But when he wrote that goal down, he misspelled “regional.”

Neil won his school bee this year and then took the regional competition to make it to the national bee. The big-time bee is strenuous, and Neil admitted Tuesday that he was getting a little nervous. In that respect, he’s no different than almost every other contestant in the competition, which has gained a national following and is broadcast on ESPN and streamed live on its website.

The Bee has accommodated spellers with special needs and has had a number of students with hearing impairments during the past decade, said spokeswoman Valerie Miller.

For Neil, the word reader at the bee will use an FM system that sends the word over a small radio frequency to a receiver located on the back of Neil’s head. That is then transmitted to a cochlear implant — a tiny receiver — that stimulates the auditory nerve and enables hearing.

If the method is unique, the end result is the same. Neil hears the word and has to spell it correctly. He has been practicing with his mom for months, and admits he’s a perfectionist.

“If I ask him to spell a hundred words, he’s not happy unless he gets a hundred right,” she said.

On Wednesday morning, the practice will meet the test of live competition. Neil, who has two younger sisters rooting for him at home, will join the other 284 spellers duking it out to see who will reign as this year’s champ.

And like the rest of them, when he is called to the stage for his turn to spell, he’ll be thrilled to hear his name.


Eleven-year-old Neil Maes, who is hearing-impaired contestant in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, jokes with parents and teachers prior to a news conference at the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Georgetown. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

Get updates on your area delivered via e-mail