How do you spell success? At La Cañada Unified School District, it's spelled N-A-O-M-I, thanks to a standout performance last Thursday at the district's annual spelling bee from Palm Crest sixth-grader Naomi Kearl, who beat 15 other elementary school competitors to clinch a spot in the Ninth Annual Los Angeles County Spelling Bee, to be held March 26.
School-site winners from La Cañada Preparatory School and Palm Crest, Paradise Canyon and La Cañada elementary schools, deconstructed "pedantic" words with "ferocious" "velocity" over the course of four grueling rounds in the district office's Governing Board room.
Rules of the competition were read by Palm Crest Principal Karen Hurley and enforced by La Cañada High School assistant principals James Cartnal and Dr. Jarrett Gold, who served as judges with district Assistant Supt. Patty Hagar.
"There will only be one winner tonight, but I want you to know you're all winners," Hurley said before the contest. "Congratulations for making it up here."
The first two spellers struck out. By the third round the crowd had thinned by four contestants, who collected commemorative medals before taking seats in the audience. Words increased in difficulty, from "quest" and "kayak" in the beginning to "entrepreneur" and "acquaintance" toward the end. Struggling contestants could request a word be defined or used in a sentence.
The final round pitted Kearl against La Cañada Prep fifth-grader Jordan Lay, whose cool delivery seemed a competitive edge.
"At this point we have two contestants left," Hurley said. "Basically, you have to spell two words correctly to be the winner. Good luck."
The first word, "orthodontist" threw Lay for a loop, and she got it wrong. Kearl took a stab and stumbled on the same vowel, keeping both girls in the fight.
Next, "insidious," proved to be just that for Lay, who faltered six letters in. Kearl saw her chance and spelled it correctly, victory just one word away. The audience was breathless as Cartnal announced the final word: "vengeance." Kearl nailed it to win the competition.
Afterward, Liza Kearl confessed her daughter's win was a special one.
"She's been in the spelling bee for the last two years, but she's never made it to the district," she said. "Third time's the charm."
The two finalists said they'd prepped for battle by studying word lists and doing some dictionary diving. Lay's mother, Rachel Akeson, said she quizzed Jordan to help her daughter visualize the words in her head.
Kearl said that despite her nerves about competing, her study habits this time around were a bit casual.
"To be honest, I didn't really study as much this time as I did in the school spelling bee," she said, cradling a large first-place trophy in her arms. "The major thing is I love reading, so I pick up words along the way."
Still flush from recent victory, Kearl was too excited to think about the next level of competition coming up.
"Right now I'm just going to not think about it for a little while," she said. "Then I'm going to start studying."
SARA CARDINE is a freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.