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City spelling bee champ sees postponement of national bee as ‘blessing in disguise’

Grahm Sheldon won the regional Chicago competition March 12.

Grahm Sheldon, 11, of Uptown, was supposed to compete in the national spelling bee in May, until the spread of the coronavirus.
Grahm Sheldon, 11, of Uptown, was supposed to compete in the national spelling bee in May, until the spread of the coronavirus.

If your toddler is chasing the cat with a foam pirate sword or the noise coming from your teenager’s stereo conjures a Cape Canaveral rocket launch, you might not want to read on.

Because in a cramped apartment somewhere in Uptown, 11-year-old Grahm Sheldon will, in all likelihood, spend an hour or so today thumbing through an 11-pound, 2,200-page dictionary.

“When I really, really want something, I know that I can’t just get it automatically,” said Grahm, who plays the violin in his spare time and is a fifth-grader at Walt Disney Magnet School. “I kind of like working hard for it because then I feel accomplished once I do get it. I just kind of find a thrill in it — kind of.”

But the “thrill” is on hold for now, after the recently crowned 2020 CPS Citywide Spelling Bee champion learned a little over a week ago the 93rd Scripps National Spelling Bee scheduled for the week of May 24 in Maryland has been suspended — thanks to the coronavirus.

Grahm beat out 46 other city kids March 12 to qualify for the national competition, correctly spelling “zazen” — a type of meditation — to take the title.

His father, Mark Sheldon, got word in an email March 20 that his youngest son wouldn’t be heading to the East Coast in May.

“He took it very well,” Grahm’s dad said. “I was probably more upset than he was. He’s worked so hard on the spelling bee. He really went to town and did a lot of this on his own. I would quiz him, but he actually learned all the definitions as well.”

Where others might sulk or feel a bit sorry for themselves, Grahm has spotted an opportunity.

“I don’t remember being too sad because mainly all I could really think about was [that] I had more time to study,” Grahm said. Or to put it another way, he said he sees it as a “blessing in disguise.”

Though he has a spelling bee app, his preparations for the national competition — whenever it is — have been decidedly old school. Why does he like an old-fashioned dictionary?

“I can just kind of open to a random page, skim ... for hard words that I can write down. You can’t really do that on the app,” he said.

But Grahm’s life — in a condo where he, his older brother and dad are “pretty much on top of each other,” his father said — isn’t all work.

“I feel like a normal kid. I do like to watch TV,” he said. He plays the occasional video game, too.

“He really earns his Minecraft time, let me tell you,” his dad said.