The Joy of Victory and Friends – Josephine Kao

Posted on Posted in 2011

Before I “officially” commence my first post, I suppose I should formally introduce myself.

My name is Josephine Kao–I competed in the Scripps National Spelling Bee for four years, from 2006-2009 (like Kavya). My highest placement was 13th place in 2008. During my spelling “career”, I was fortunate enough to be able to meet Kavya out of the hundreds of contestants, and over the course of time we have kept in touch as good friends! As mentioned in an earlier post of Kavya’s, one of the most invaluable things that can be gained from the experience of a bee is simply the friends you meet there. More often than not these people are irrevocably accomplished, and chances are you’ll end up seeing them somewhere again sometime (I’ve had actual experiences with this..but that’s another post). Never cease to embrace the opportunity to meet some genuinely amazing people. Now, onto my 5th grade story…

At the young age of 10, I had done my fair share of studying, drilling, and doting on the possibility of competing at Nationals. I had watched the critically acclaimed documentary Spellbound several times, finding inspiration from the real stories of eight students in their paths to compete at the Scripps National Spelling Bee.  I knew the film inside out; every word and witty remark made by the spellers was ingrained upon my memory. At that time I had always hoped, but never expected to win my regional spelling bee and qualify for Nationals. The regional bee I competed in was the California Central Valley Spelling Bee, fittingly sponsored by the Sacramento Bee. This bee is generally rather competitive, and consists of a written elimination round a few months prior to the oral competition (usually in March) so that the field can be narrowed from about 200 to 60. It was my first experience in truly ‘competitive’ spelling, and I felt the adrenaline rush and butterflies even as I took the written test. I knew that my mom had helped me to adequately prepared, but was I really ready? I didn’t know.

I did pass the written test and on March 3, 2006, I found myself -a soft-spoken and timid 10 year old- on stage, with a bunch of imposing and ‘scary’ looking eighth graders. I was wearing my Sketcher shoes and khaki pants, prepared yet inevitably nervous. My ice skating coach, some of my teachers, my mom and brother were all there to support me. I didn’t want to disappoint anyone, but I knew that the chances of a 5th grader winning would be low. But inside of me, there was this growing belief that I could reach higher. As the rounds progressed, I became more and more confident. The scary looking eighth graders were being eliminated, and somehow my capabilities were greater than I had thought. Before I knew it, the only two people left on stage were…me, and an eighth grader. We rallied back and forth for at least nine rounds, each of us misspelling over and over. There were words like “kentledge” (pig iron/scrap ballast metal) and “didascaly” (type of Greek drama), which at the time, neither of us knew.  I was becoming more comfortable, even though both of us were misspelling incessantly. When the other boy misspelled “edaphon”, I expected to also misspell it, but to my surprise I guessed it correctly using some knowledge of Greek roots. I almost walked away from the microphone and spotlights when the pronouncer told me to come back…”one more word, and then that’s it!”, he reminded me. I took a deep breath. “Your word is…cabotinage.” I was smiling so much inside…I knew this word from Spellbound. But I was cautious as always, asking questions to confirm the etymology and definition. After “writing” it on my hand as I had seen so many other spellers do on TV, I took a deep breath. Slowly but surely, I enunciated each letter: c-a-b-o-t-i-n-a-g-e, cabotinage. Instead of telling me “that’s correct”, the pronouncer happily announced to me, “pack your bags!” I jumped up and down with my fists clenched, thrilled at the joy of victory. Soon the crowd was standing up, clapping- I realized that my mom had gained what she deserved, a free trip to Washington D.C. I also received a copy of Merriam Webster’s Third New International Unabridged, along with a few other useful resources and the $100 savings bond. It was all such a daze- I was suprised and thrilled and speechless. Before I knew it there were reporters and cameramen and words of encouragement surrounding me. I couldn’t have asked for more than to simply make all the preparation worth it. It was the joy of victory, and the start of a new beginning. A beginning that would take me on a long four year path–a path to exploration of the world of words, a path to self-discovery, and a path to friendship. And thus I had started my journey to the Scripps National Spelling Bee!

For those of you out there reading this post, if you’d like, go ahead and respond with a comment about your bee experiences! Also if you have any questions for me, feel free to comment and I’ll try to answer to the best of my abilities. Once again, thanks to the Shivashankars for starting this blog and thanks to you for reading!

– Josephine

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