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Anurag slays appoggiatura

Education | Homeschoolers and hard-working Asian descendants continue national spelling bee domination

Issue: "MS-13: Criminals next door," June 18, 2005

WASHINGTON, D.C.-Only at the very end did 13-year-old speller Anurag Kashyap lose his cool. Exsiccosis did not dismay him in Round 17, and he slew ornithorhynchous in Round 12. But so stunned was he when he won the 78th Annual Scripps National Spelling Bee, he shielded his face with his contestant number and dissolved into tears.

If Anurag was overwhelmed, it may have been because the whole room was cheering for him. Spellers knocked out earlier yelped in anticipation when the pronouncer declared appoggiatura as his final word, knowing it was a cinch for the eighth-grader from San Diego. Parents sprung to their feet in applause and remained standing as he hoisted the champion's gold trophy.

With his father at turns grinning and mopping his eyes with a striped handkerchief, Anurag could initially find only one word to describe his emotion. "Ecstaticness," he said, before the new spelling champ corrected himself. "I went up against 272 great competitors . . . this competition would be nothing without the camaraderie."

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Even as the June 1-2 spelling bee was as fierce as it has ever been, camaraderie was in play throughout the competition. This year's national round drew the greatest number of spellers ever. Yet as they brought months of intense studying and a hunger to win to the stage, they also comforted one another and built friendships.

That was evident in the wide carpeted hallway outside the crowded competition room at Washington's Grand Hyatt Hotel. Reporters eyed tall double doors outside the "comfort room," a sanctuary where bee officials ushered contestants after they misspelled a word, waiting for vanquished spellers to emerge for perhaps tearful interviews.

Seattle homeschooler Claire Nieman, 13, knew the anteroom well. Last year she tied for 27th place; this year she tied for 37th with 14 other spellers after she stumbled on the word glottalize in Round 5. Minutes later she emerged from the comfort room with her parents and little sister, grateful she had been a contestant again.

"I really, really wanted to be up here, and I had to wait till sixth grade," she told WORLD, her voice rising with excitement. "I thought, 'I want to be at the national spelling bee someday.'"

She glanced down at her disappointed sister, who was clinging to her mother in a lilac sweatshirt: "Charlotte always cries when I get out."

With all her devotion to spelling, poring over obscure Latin derivatives has not been Claire's only passion. She has played the piano for seven years. ("She's pretty good," her father interjected.) She sings in her church choir. And she loves to read. Her favorite book? Eats, Shoots and Leaves, of course-the national bestseller on grammar and punctuation usage.

Two rounds later, Claire was outside the comfort room again. This time she was waiting with fellow contestant Dorian Burks (out in Round 4) for an also-fallen friend, Kimberly Campbell Olson, to emerge. So what's to comfort Kimberly in the comfort room?

"It's just a room where you can be private," Claire explained.

"And they have snacks in there," said Dorian, 13, "but it's hard to eat when you're traumatized." Both spellers said they just sipped Mountain Dew when they were inside. When a serene-looking Kimberly exited with family, Claire wrapped her in a bear hug. The 12-year-old Gainesville, Fla., homeschooler tied for 28th place, but had it tougher in some ways: Her sister Katie tied for sixth place in the bee last year and directed Kimberly's study schedule. "Towards the end I had to study more and more," Kimberly said. In all, she mastered some 17,500 words.

Homeschoolers have been increasingly successful at the national spelling bee, as well as other academic competitions. This year's bee saw 34 homeschool children who are not only accomplished academics, but musicians and athletes, too. Another group blazing trails includes children like Anurag, sons and daughters of South Asian immigrants who emphasize strong study habits. The top four spellers this year were Indian, as were three of the four previous champions since 2001.

If these children are some of the brightest in their generation, they also have a reputation for lacking social skills. But nobody would know that looking at 12-year-old Jonathan Horton of Gilbert, Ariz. Ousted in Round 7 in his first national spelling bee, Jonathan breezed through his media interviews afterwards like a savvy congressman on Capitol Hill.

"Spell your last name," asked one reporter with ABC, as Jonathan settled into a chair in front of the crew's camera.

"Y-O-U-R . . . L-A-S-T . . . N-A-M-E," he replied.

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