Jamaicans hold high hopes for Queen Bee speller

Twelve-year-old Chaunte Blackwood is the pride of her people, the champion of her nation and the hope of all classmates at Kingston’s Ardenne High School in Jamaica.

Throughout this week in Jamaica, Blackwood will be cheered, prayed for and held in high esteem during the 89th Annual Scripps National Spelling Bee.

Dubbed the Queen Bee for out-spelling all school-age contenders that vied for the Gleaner Company-sponsored championship competition held in Jamaica, her name could easily resonate with similarity and enthusiasm to Usain Bolt’s, Shelly Frazier Price’s, Bob Marley, Marcus Mosiah Garvey’s or Jody Ann Maxwell’s.

Those achievers are regaled with pride for elevating the status of the Caribbean nation and its potential for winning against tremendous odds.

However, first from May 24 to 26 Blackwood will have to beat out 284 other spellers from across the United States, The Bahamas, Canada, Ghana, Japan and South Korea all eager to win the coveted loving cup, the $40,000 prize moneys and more than any other incentive, claim the distinction a fellow student from her school achieved in 1998.

That year, Maxwell at the same age smartly won all the top prizes but also emerged the first non-American to win the coveted national and now international spelling contest.

Since that year, it seems the best of the island’s Bees have emerged finalists from that educational institution to represent the entire island.

The anticipated event will be held at the Maryland Ballroom within the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland and for devoted spell checkers, the cheering has already begun.

Hanif Brown, a former Jamaica national champion who competed at Scripps in 2011 said Blackwood has all the qualities of a winner.

“She has worked hard, she has made a lot of sacrifices, and Jamaica will only see the result.”

Although Brown lost out to tough competition five years ago, the former contender said “the important thing for Chaunte to take from this is that whatever it is you do in life, there are going to be challenges.”

Brown is now a senior at Ardenne and in addition to a demanding study regimen, he is also the replacement coach following the 2015 death of Glen Archer, a reputed spelling coach credited with steering the best to international attention.

Archer coached 26 national champion spellers and it was Archer who coached Maxwell to celebrity status in her native Jamaica after she clinched the title with the word “chiaroscurist.”

And while Jamaicans hailed that historic acclaim, there are those that believe the U.S. national competition should be relegated to Americans.

Some even contend that a limit should be placed on the racial makeup of finalists.

Their argument is that for “seven years in a row, and for 11 of the past 15 years, the $30,000 Scripps National Spelling Bee championship has been won by American youngsters of Indian heritage.”

While that may be true, organizers of the competition offer that “they (Indians) make up one in five of the 285 spellers, aged nine through 15, from all 50 states and seven foreign countries, who ran a gauntlet of local and regional contests to qualify for the big event.”

To further dispute the bias, “Americans of South Asian heritage make up just one percent of the United States population, but only a few are really into competitive spelling, Shalina Shankar, Northwestern University anthropology professor said.

Seven of the 10 finalists in the National Geographic Bee earlier this month were Indian American, including the winner, Karan Menon, from New Jersey.

“I look forward to the day, as do I think many of our South Asian participants, when they are called what they want to be called — Americans,” Paige Kimble, a 1981 champion and current Bee director said.

“The bee is one of the truest forms of meritocracy, and we support every kid no matter where they come from,” Kimble added.

“It’s unfortunate that people have some not very nice things to say on social media.”

The Bee is the nation’s largest and longest-running educational promotion, administered on a not-for-profit basis by The E.W. Scripps Company and 288 sponsors in the United States, Europe, Canada, New Zealand, Guam, Jamaica, The Bahamas, Ghana, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and American Samoa.

Annually held in late May and / or early June of each year, competitions are open to students who have not yet completed the eighth grade, reached their 15th birthday, nor won a previous National Spelling Bee.

Formed in 1925 as a consolidation of numerous local spelling bees, the contest was formulated to enhance the vocabulary of youngsters while offering an incentive to participate in a national contest.

“The goal is educational: not only to encourage children to perfect the art of spelling, but also to help enlarge their vocabularies and widen their knowledge of the English language,” Wikipedia notes.

Although still not a national attraction for television viewers, films such as “Akeelah & The Bee” which starred Laurence Fishburne and Keke Palmer have certainly raised the profile of able spellers who rise above their own impediments to conquer the prize of being The Bee.

This year, the entertainment component for those watching the competition will be greatly enhanced with the addition of exciting, first-time interactive features.

ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPN3 will combine to broadcast more than 13 live hours of competition and features starting on May 25 at 8 am.

“Throughout the competition, ESPN3 on Watch ESPN will feature a second-screen, multiple-choice Play-Along version, presented by Sony’s “The Angry Birds” movie that gives fans a one-in-four chance to pick the correct spelling of the given word while allowing fans to try their hand at competing along with the spellers.

This year’s Play-Along version has been enhanced, adding a fourth multiple-choice answer to create a more integrated and immersive experience. It will still feature informational boxes highlighting the word’s etymology, definition, pronunciation and part of speech, as well as live tweets, the speller’s biography and a lot more.”

Also new this year is the SpellCheck feature on the main feed. It will highlight each individual letter as the contestant spells the word. Correct letters will glisten in gold and the first letter the speller gets incorrectly will be highlighted in red.

Champion(s) will take home the $40,000 cash prize and the Scripps National Spelling Bee engraved trophy.

They will also get a Merriam-Webster prize of US$2,500 savings bond and a complete reference library.

Encylopedia Brittanica sweetens the pot with $400 of reference works including a 1768 Encyclopædia Britannica Replica Set Deluxe Edition and a three-year membership to Britannica Online Premium.

And what most pre-teens want and could really enjoy is an expense-paid trip to New York City. The international Bee champion will appear on ABC-TV’s morning show, “Live! with Kelly Ripa.”

The school represented by the champion will also receive engraved plaques from Scripps.

“Chaunte has been working very hard and I have every confidence in her abilities. I am sure she will do herself proud.”

“However well it is that she does, I will be proud of her,” coach Brown stated.

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