All around him, children were disappearing — their vacant chairs a stark black against a backdrop of bright blue.
Faizan Zaki, 7, clasped his hands in front of his small face and closed his eyes in prayer.
An easy word, he knew, could spell salvation at the 2019 Scripps National Spelling Bee. Instead, the first-grader got “knoll,” a homonym he had never heard.
After the microphone was lowered to an appropriate height, Faizan asked for the definition and part of speech. He considered his options.
“At first I thought it was spelled N-O-L-L,” he said later. “But then I thought, ‘No, that’s not it.’ ”
He sounded it out.
“N-O-L-E,” he said to the judges.
A bell dinged, and Faizan knew he had gotten it wrong. But the uproarious applause that filled the auditorium at the Gaylord National Resort in Maryland was fit for a champion. The crowd clapped as Faizan walked off the stage toward his parents and twin sister, who met him on the auditorium floor. He high-fived dozens of strangers while walking toward the exit.
Faizan, of Allen, Tex., was the youngest of 562 competitors at this year’s championship spell-off, which includes children from every state, several territories and countries near and far, including Canada, Ghana and South Korea. The winner will be crowned Thursday night, the culmination of four days of single-elimination spelling.
While he waited his turn at the center of the bright blue stage, Faizan waved excitedly to his family. His feet bounced and swung from his chair, unable to reach the ground.
Faizan is not the youngest competitor to take the stage at the National Spelling Bee. Edith Fuller, of Tulsa, was 5 when she qualified for the competition in 2017, turning 6 by the time she competed in the national contest.
“It’s honestly amazing that he made it so far,” said his mother, Arshia Quadri. “I really did not think we would be here. I made a whole plan to go on vacation instead and, well, here we are.”
Faizan studies words with the help of his father and twin sister, Zara. He said he enjoys the challenge of big words the most.
His favorite word, pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis, is “a disease caused by volcano ash,” he explained. Another favorite is “cwm,” a word without vowels that describes a geological formation.
When he’s not spelling, he likes studying science and learning about space. He has a favorite planet — 55 Cancri e — that also is known as the “diamond planet.” When asked by an interviewer from ESPN on Wednesday to draw a picture of something, anything he likes, Faizan drew a diagram of the structure of a human cell.
“My favorite things are hypothetical objects,” he said.
Faizan is one of 292 kids to qualify for the Bee through its new, and controversial, invitational program known as “RSVBee.”
The initiative, rolled out last year, opened a path to the nationals for former finalists or those who won their school spelling bee but didn’t come in first place at the regional or state competition. Officials said the option was added to even the playing field. But parents who enter their children through the invitational program are required to pay a $750 entry fee if their child is accepted.
That means an expanded field — with almost twice the usual number of participants — in the past two years. This year’s bee is the event’s largest.
“My first time, I thought there were so many people here it was almost overwhelming, and that was nothing like this,” said Rebekah Zeigler, 14, a five-time returnee from Polo, Ill.
For first-time spellers like James Roach, an eighth-grader from Dorado, Puerto Rico, the expanded field means more opportunities to make friends between rounds.
James, 13, who was eliminated during Wednesday’s third round by the word “malediction,” said the opportunity to meet people and represent his home have been the most rewarding parts of the contest.
“I really liked being here,” said James, picking foam off his socks after a dive to the bottom of a pit of foam letter blocks at the Bee’s play area, dubbed the “Beehive.” “It’s been fun getting to know everyone.”
The competition is, at times, fierce.
On Wednesday, several spellers left the stage in tears, ushered through the crowd by their mom or dad. But, Rebekah said, it’s the supportive and friendly atmosphere that has kept her wanting to come back.
“The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve found that coming back here every year is really fun because of the people,” she said, adding that since she’s aging out of the competition, it’s up to her little brother, Gage, to get the family back to nationals. “I’m not gonna put too much pressure on him, but I’d like to come back next year and not have to worry about studying.”
About a dozen spellers make it to the prime-time finals that get aired live on national television.
The elite bunch must first ace a written vocabulary and spelling test, successfully spell a series of randomly selected words onstage over the span of three days and make it through finals, which can last several hours.
Faizan said he was disappointed he didn’t make the finals, but not devastated. That’s because, he said, he’s confident he’ll be back.
“Maybe next year he can make it to the final 50,” said his father, Zaki Anwar.
“No,” Faizan said. “Let’s get me to number one.”