Catonsville Middle Schooler Is Baltimore’s “Spell-ebrity”

Shaheer Ali Imam of Al-Rahmah School represented the Baltimore region in the 2017 Scripps National Spelling Bee this week—for the second time in his 13-year life.

How does a good speller become a spelling champion? Hard work. “Three hours a night on a school night,” Shaheer says. He trained with a dictionary and word lists and credits his family and his teachers (“all of them”) for his success.

Shaheer Ali Imam

At the start of “Bee Week,” as organizers call it, competitors arrived for the 90th annual competition from all over the country (and some from around world) to enjoy a week-long, activity-filled celebration.

On Tuesday, the kids completed round one off-camera, taking a written test that was used to determine who made it to finals. In the first live, televised round, round two, kids were quizzed from a list of 400 words given to them ahead of time by contest organizers. A large majority of kids advanced to round three, where any word in the official Bee dictionary, the Merriam-Webster Unabridged, could be chosen to test the spellers’ acumen.

In the third round, nearly one-third of the spellers were bested by their words, and the increased intensity of the competition could be felt throughout the auditorium. After pronouncer Dr. Jacques Bailly, a linguist and etymology professor, states the speller’s given word, the child has two minutes to spell it and can ask clarifying questions, such as the definition, alternate pronunciations and the word’s etymology. Spellers can also ask Dr. Bailly to use the word in a sentence.

(One speller, Sylvia Nguyen of Missouri, asked Dr. Bailly to sing the word in a song. Dr. Bailly laughed, but declined.)

The three spellers before Shaheer misspelled their words. Kids who miss their words in the live rounds are led offstage with a compassionate half-hug, half-handshake by Bee Week staff escorts. According to executive director Paige Kimble, many of their staff escorts are “former Bee kids,” which gives them the compassion they need to “read, react and provide comfort as needed.” Offstage, the kids wait to be joined by a family member on the “comfort couch” with tissue dispensers within arm’s reach.

Would Shaheer need the comfort couch or would he conquer his word? Shaheer admits he got “a little” nervous. “I try not to be. But sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t.”

The middle schooler stepped up to the beehive-shaped stage in front of ESPN’s live TV cameras and Dr. Bailly pronounced Shaheer’s word: sufficiency.

Shaheer spelled sufficiency with—it must be said—great sufficiency.

Sufficiency, however, was not sufficient to get him into the finals. Due to a scoring system that uses scores from a preliminary test to decide who (of the successful spellers) enters the final rounds, Shaheer was just one point away from reaching the finals. This year, just 40 finalists were selected—last year, the Bee selected 45 spellers; in 2015, there were 49 finalists.

This scoring system puts Shaheer in a tie for 41st place, out of 291 nationwide competitors.

Shaheer offers this advice for ‘wanna-Bees:’ “Work hard. If you fail, that’s OK. You can do it again next year.”

Can you spell like a Bee winner?

Photo courtesy of Mark Bowen/Scripps National Spelling Bee

About Erica Rimlinger

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