Before the contestants stepped to the microphone Friday in the Chicago Public Schools’ annual Citywide Spelling Bee Championship, Wayne Bevis offered them some of the best advice they’ll ever get.

Bevis, principal at Lindblom Math and Science Academy, which hosted the event, called their attention to one of his school’s core values:

“You learn as much from failure as you do from success,” Bevis said.

So true.


Five hours and 20 tense rounds later, 12-year-old Riya Joshi, a poised sixth grader from South Loop Elementary, emerged as the 2017 champion.

Riya correctly spelled “attaché” and “toxicosis” at the end to outlast Aaron Chang, a fifth grader at Audobon who was tripped up by the word “skerry.”

That qualified Riya to represent Chicago at the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., but it left Aaron and 48 other finalists to draw wisdom from defeat.

It was my own memory of having finished second as a kid in my school district’s spelling bee that drew me to West Englewood for Friday’s event.

But I want to keep the focus on the great group of 50 kids who earned the chance to compete by first winning their own elementary school’s spelling bee, then taking a test to advance past the initial group of 148 winners.

They served as a reminder that there are so many good, smart kids at CPS — in all its multi-racial, multi-ethnic glory — who are working hard to succeed. We really ought to be doing better by them.

Even the students who fell in the first round did their schools proud by stepping on the stage to risk a lifetime of self-recrimination.

For me, it was how could I have misspelled “cemetery?”

Mom later accused me of choking. Dad turned it into a running joke: “How do you spell cemetery? G-R-A-V-E-Y-A-R-D.”

I survived.

Before the contest started Friday I sat in the audience between the youngest contestant, Aryan Thapa-Chhetri, a precocious third grader of Nepalese descent who attends Decatur Classical, and Salvador Babinet, a French-American eighth grader at Lincoln.

Third-grader Aryan Thapa-Chhetri, the youngest contestant in Chicago Public Schools Citywide Spelling Bee Championship, headed for his father’s lap after falling out of the competition in the fourth round. | Mark Brown/Sun-Times

Aryan, 8, asked the girl sitting behind him how much she had studied.

“My mom is driving me crazy with this stuff,” he said.

Salvador nervously studied his list while chatting with his mom, Tiphanie, in French and English: “Hippopotamus. H-I-P-P-O-P-O-T-A-M-U-S.”

Salvador fell in round two on “pinafore,” a tough word for an early round, I told him later.

“It is somewhat of a game of chance,” he said sportingly.

Aryan, wearing a jaunty little cap, made it to the fourth round before misspelling “piccolo.”

Later, I would learn from his father he had misheard and correctly spelled “pickelhaube,” a type of spiked helmet that was on the word list.

The next time he will slow down and ask for a definition of the word.

There was plenty of that Friday. Pronouncer Gina Caneva repeated words, used them in a sentence and explained their origin as asked. If it had been a written test, I would have misspelled at least a third of the words.

Only 10 contestants remained by the start of the eighth round. Conquistador, détente, mnemonic, cacophony, sarsaparilla and croesus narrowed it to four: Riya, Aaron, Adanma Abedayo-Kay from Disney and Sanjana Kumar from Disney.

Sanjana missed on “interment” in round 16. “Embrasure” claimed Adanma in round 18.

Soon, it was over, Riya holding her hands to her face when she realized she had won.

Riya told me she loves to read and swim and wants to be an orthopedic surgeon. She resides in River North with her parents, Amit and Krishna. Her father, a physician, said Riya’s twin sister advanced to the citywide spelling finals in fourth grade.

What did I learn from my spelling failure those many years ago?

Well, for one, I learned there is no “a” in “cemetery.”

For another, there’s always somebody out there smarter than you.