The 6-year-old could barely reach the microphone Wednesday at the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
Finally, Akash Vukoti — the first first-grader in bee history — pulled the mic down and was given his second-round word, “bacteriolytic,” which means relating to or causing the destruction or dissolution of bacterial cells.
“What?” Akash asked in a sweet voice.
The crowd at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center at National Harbor laughed, charmed by the little boy dressed in gray slacks and a blue jacket, vying for a spelling championship against children more than twice his age. He’d already spelled “inviscate” correctly. Now fans stood and professional photographers jostled for just the right spot to see him tackle his second word.
“Bacteriolytic,” Akash said. “May I have the alternative pronunciations, please?”
“There’s just the one,” said the bee’s longtime pronouncer, Jacques Bailly.
After a few more questions, Akash gave his answer: “b-a-c-t-e-r-i-a-l-y-t-i-c.”
At first, claps. The crowd thought he got it. But then, the dreaded ding. The crowd favorite from San Angelo, Tex., was wrong. Fans clapped anyway. Everyone, even his fellow competitors on the stage, applauded so loudly it was impossible to hear the boy’s words of thanks.
Akash became a casualty of this week’s spelling showdown, featuring 284 elementary- and middle-school students on a neon-lit stage.
On Wednesday, the group was pared to 45 finalists. The top contenders from the Washington area: Kyra Holland, a 14-year-old eighth-grader from Warrenton, Va.; Jiming Chen Jr., 10, a fifth-grader from Bethesda; eighth-grader Edwin Estep, 14, from Berryville, Va.; and Tejas Muthusamy, a 13-year-old seventh-grader from Richmond.
By Thursday night, the finalists will be winnowed to about a dozen for the championship spell-off, broadcast live at 8 p.m. on ESPN. In 2014 and 2015, the bee declared co-champions, but new rules have been instituted to make the championship round this year possibly longer and more difficult.
To make it to Thursday’s final round, students had to rack up as many points as possible on two fronts. First, they had to have performed well on a multiple-choice test Tuesday. Then they had to correctly spell onstage one word in Wednesday’s morning round and another in the afternoon round. Even if they aced Tuesday’s written test, a misspelled word Wednesday meant instant dismissal. The spellers who earned the most points moved on to Thursday.
For Wednesday’s morning round, students were asked to spell words from a list of 400 that they were given in early April. By lunch, 33 students were tossed for ever-so-slight errors on words that would crush any normal spell-check- and Google-reliant human.
But the afternoon’s third round — when any word from about 476,000 in the dictionary could be thrown at them — was far more brutal, eliminating more than 100 contestants. Some of the stranger words that surfaced: “furbelow,” “phobotactic” and “saponaceous.”
For much of Wednesday, Akash lit up the room with his diminutive size and confident voice. He recently appeared on Steve Harvey’s “Little Big Shots” on NBC and came into this year’s bee as something of a celebrity. When the pint-size child approached the microphone Wednesday for the first of his turns, Bailly, the pronouncer, had to instruct him on how to lower the microphone. (He told Akash not to unscrew the device.)
Cameras clicked, and everyone laughed.
“Hi to all,” Akash said.
He was given the word “inviscate,” which means to encase in a sticky substance.
Akash asked a lot of questions — Could you use it in a sentence? Could you repeat the word? — but finally nailed it. And the crowd and students behind him on the stage clapped with hearty approval. One fellow competitor even high-fived him.
Others didn’t make it past the morning round.
Ali H. Hussain, a seventh-grader from El Centro, Calif., was gone after the morning round once he fumbled “chanoyu” — a Japanese tea ceremony — spelling it “c-h-a-n-t-e-a-u.”
Ammaar Mohammed, a seventh-grader from Tampa, tripped on “alpargata” (a light canvas shoe) with this concoction: “a-l-p-e-r-g-a-t-a.”
Once students made mistakes, they heard a supposedly friendly ding, their cue to go stage-right to a set of sofas, where they waited for a parent to collect them.
Some students barely escaped such fate, often at the mercy of four judges.
Take the case of Sameera Hussain, 12, a seventh-grader from Porterville, Calif. Here’s how her tense turn at the microphone played out:
“Howdy,” Bailly said.
“Hi,” Sameera said.
“I take it you got a good night’s sleep.”
“Not really,” she said as the audience laughed.
“I’m sorry. Conestoga.”
“Conestoga. Can I please have the definition?” she asked.
“A broad-wheel covered wagon usually drawn by six horses and used especially for transporting freight.”
“Uh, may I have the language of origin?”
“It’s from a U.S. geographical name.”
“May I have the part of speech?”
“ ‘Conestoga’ is a noun,” the judge said.
“Can you use it in a sentence?”
“The Conestoga was loaded with goods to take from the city to more rural communities.”
Sameera waited 10 seconds before answering: “Conestoga. C-o-n-e-s-t-o-g — ah — a.”
The judges waited about 20 seconds — the bee equivalent of a century — before they decided to shrug off her millisecond swerve into a wrong-sounding utterance and wave her on to Wednesday afternoon’s third round.
Once Bailly said she was correct, the crowd erupted with cheers and Sameera walked back to her seat, avoiding the dreaded Sofas of Sulk.
Some students, such as Kyle Skinner, were not so lucky. The 13-year-old from Iowa misspelled “catadromous,” an adjective that means “living in freshwater and going to the sea to spawn,” according to the dictionary. Kyle, however, forgot to throw in the second “o” in the last part of the word.
After his mother picked him up at the sofas, the two walked to the back of the ballroom and sat down. His eyes watered up, but Kyle was stoic.
“I feel like I must have skipped over that word on the list,” he said.
“He studied the words repeatedly,” said his mom, Leslie Powell-Skinner.
“The words before and after me,” he said, “were the ones I was hoping to get.”