The word that finally tripped up 13-year-old Lyla Heising was “finial,” defined as an ornament located at the top, corner or end of an object.
It was Round 3 of the Scripps National Spelling Bee on May 30 in Washington, D.C. Lyla, a Wauseon resident and Pettisville Local Schools eighth grader, wasn’t familiar with the word, and was disqualified after adding an extra “n.” She has taken the miss in stride.
“I think I did pretty well. I really enjoyed it. It’s sort of like my thing,” she said.
Last week, Lyla was one of over 500 students nationally and internationally to converge on the Gaylord Resort and Convention Center in the nation’s capital to compete with other wordsmiths at the annual spelling bee. She earned a place after besting 60 other students with the word “innovative” at the 2018 Blade Northwest Ohio Championship Spelling Bee in Toledo in March.
Attending the national spelling bee was the pinnacle for Lyla, who has competed in spelling bees since third grade. A five-time winner of the Fulton County Spelling Bee, she had placed as high as fifth in The Blade’s annual contest before this year’s championship win.
The daughter of Derek and Sarah Heising, and the second of five children, Lyla passed the first round of the Scripps event, a preliminary test. During Round 2, which began the speaking portion, she correctly spelled “Danube.”
And competition was tough. Lyla stood her ground against the country’s best student spellers, as well as phenoms from Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, and South Korea. Many received help from professional coaches.
At Round 2, the remaining contestants each received a 100-page guide listing 600 words, all potential contenders, with their definitions and roots. Lyla highlighted those she didn’t know and looked them up in the sanctioned unabridged version of Merriam-Webster dictionary.
“It’s actually harder for the kids because they haven’t had a chance to memorize the words,” said her mother, Sarah Heising. “Any word out of the unabridged Merriam-Webster dictionary is fair game.”
And the next round got tougher.
“Round 3, for a normal person, they would look at the words and think they were easy,” Sarah Heising said. “But for the kids, they just have to hear the word on the spot and think through it. In preparation, the students are encouraged to study the roots and stems of the words. It helps them to figure out the spelling of words they’ve never seen before.”
She said Lyla wasn’t sure if “finial” contained one or two n’s, and second-guessed herself. She said her daughter knows difficult, complicated words, and it would have been nice to go out on a more difficult one. “But I didn’t want her to not feel proud of herself. She’s a phenomenal speller.”
Following Round 3, 41 finalists were selected through a process that also considered the number of points earned on their preliminary tests. Those students battled through several more rounds until 16 contestants remained. The final competition aired on ESPN the evening of May 31, and Lyla’s classmates tuned in.
The ultimate champion was Karthik Nemmani of McKinney, Texas. The winning word: “koinonia,” meaning Christian fellowship with God or other Christians.
Sarah Heising said her daughter, who was reading well at age four and entered school early, loves language. “She does have a love of words and the English language, and to be around all those kids to share that passion…they are all self-proclaimed word nerds. I just wanted her to soak up this experience.”
Scripps spelling bee spokesperson Valerie Miller said of the more than 11 million students participating in the 91-year-old program only a small percentage advance to the national finals.
“It is a very prestigious competition and only the best champion spellers reach the national level,” she said. “It is because of their qualifications and skill level that the national finals is extremely challenging for the spellers.”
And because the difficulty level has increased dramatically over the evolution of the spelling bee the spellers have gotten better as well.
“As they get better, we have to get better to continue to challenge them. (It) is a very elite class of spellers,” Miller said.
Lyla, who enters Pettisville High School in August, said, “I think it’s fun to play with different words and how they go together.”
She’ll attend Carnagie Hall in New York City on June 7 to accept an unrelated honor. Scholastic Art and Writing Awards will present her with a gold medal for her short story submission, “Just Being Me,” a fictionalized account of herself.
Sarah Heising said she was thankful for the amount of community support Lyla received while preparing for the Scripps competition. She said her daughter received warm wishes and encouragement from many people she doesn’t know.
“To kind of have something other than sports to aspire to, I just think it’s neat for the community. These kids are mental athletes,” she said. “That just really warmed my heart, that she had so many people cheer her on in something that’s not a sport.”
Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.