Carmichael Student Heading to D.C. Spelling Bee

Carmichael, CA (MPG)  |  Story and Photo by Jacqueline Fox
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Samhita Kumar, a sixth grader at Winston Churchill Middle School, stands in front of a mosaic of the school’s mascot. She is the 2017 California Central Valley Spelling Bee champion and will head to the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. in May.

Winston Churchill Middle School sixth-grader Samhita Kumar has tried twice to get to Washington, D.C. On March 1 her ability to correctly spell a seven-letter Maori word for a spiny New Zealand lizard put the trip on the map: “tuatara.”

After a mind-numbing 13 rounds against her finalist opponent, Kumar synched the 2015 California Central Valley Spelling Bee title, greenlighting her dream trip to Washington where she will compete in the 2017 Scripps National Spelling Bee in May.

“I’m so excited,” said Kumar.  “I’ve always wanted to go to Washington, D.C., and now I’m getting the chance.”

This was Kumar’s third try for the regional title and it did not come easy. For more than five hours she competed on stage at Sacramento’s Scottish Rite Masonic Center against a formidable group of 60 finalists from across the region. Kumar said it was when the competition got down to just 10 finalists that she started to feel the pressure. 

“I was very nervous and remember I was just hoping and hoping for a word I could spell,” Kumar said.

Kumar and Morgana Kato, a Sacramento fifth-grader from Sierra Oaks Elementary School, knocked their eight opponents out of the competition to face off against each other for the title.  When it was all over, Kumar defeated Kato with a correction of her opponent’s misspelling of a word, then came in hard with two perfect spellings of the words “blastemal,” a cell mass with memory to reproduce, followed by the winning “tuatara,” which she says she didn’t know, but felt confident she could figure out. After that, it was pretty much a blur.

“I’d never seen the word before but I knew it was a Maori word, so once I got its origins I kind of just figured out how to put the letters in place,” said Kumar, explaining that, as hints, judges gave spellers word origins and definitions. “After I spelled it correctly and realized I had won, I just totally blanked. I don’t remember a thing.”

Kumar’s regional bee win marks the school’s first since the 1990s, according to Winston Churchill Principal Michael Dolan. He said staff and teachers couldn’t be more proud and excited for her.

“We have an amazing group of students here and to say that her successful win at the regional competition makes us proud is really an understatement,” said Dolan. “We can’t wait to see how Samhita does in Washington, D.C.”

The road to Washington will be paved with more hard work for Kumar, including regular sessions with her spelling coach who happens to be her father, an engineer at Hewlett Packard. “He’ll be quizzing me a lot and I’m just going to try to learn as many new words as possible,” Kumar said.

The Scripps National competition is a 90-year old tradition launched in 1925 as a literacy push. Some 11 million spellers will compete this year. There were two winners in 2016: Nihar Saireddy Janga, 12, of Austin, Texas, and Jairam Jagadeesh Hathwar, 11, of Corning, New York, the youngest winner of the competition on record. They each received $40,000 and other prizes. The two winning words: “Feldenkrais” and “geshellschaft.”