At the La Cañada Unified School District headquarters Thursday, the night turned from “zany” to “outrageous” in less than an hour.
Sixteen students competed in a spelling bee that pulled four students each from the district’s La Cañada, Palm Crest and Paradise Canyon elementary schools, as well as from La Cañada Preparatory, a private school. Parents sat on the edges of their seats, watching their children take turns in a battle of memory and reading comprehension.
Palm Crest fifth-grader Solenn Matuska won after a heated battle with La Cañada Prep sixth-grader Evan Straw. Solenn, who competed in last year’s bee, said she was happy she won. To prepare for the event, she studied words online and read books, but she attributed part of her success to an innate skill.
“’I’ve always had a good memory,” she said.
Solenn thought the most difficult word tossed at her was “beleaguer,” though she quickly tackled words like “catastrophe” and “leniency.”
FOR THE RECORD: An original version of this article incorrectly spelled Solenn Matuska's name as Solunn Matuska.
Her mother, Vilay Matuska, said it was “nerve-wracking” watching her daughter compete.
“I feel relieved now,” she said, after the competition. “I was so nervous.”
A native of France, Matuska said she believes it’s essential to introduce a child to English language. “It’s very important to know words and where they come from,” she said.
Kumar Soundar, the father of 11-year-old bee participant Jayasri Krishnakumar, said his daughter was nervous before the event.
“I said, ‘Don’t be nervous, be confident and you’ll be fine,’” he said.
Soundar said La Cañada Preparatory, where Jayasri attends sixth grade, encourages students to achieve high academic success and learn difficult vocabulary. Jayasri was one of the last six students in the competition. The word she got stuck on? “Solstice.”
Participants displayed mixed reactions as they were eliminated. One student raised his fists in the air and went to pick up his medal, while another sat down and wept. Debra Cradduck, the principal at Paradise Canyon and organizer of the bee, said she tells schools to remind their students that it’s just for fun in order to prevent disappointment.
“I think that [the bee] is really an avenue to display all the kids that are such good readers and writers and it brings to community together,” she said.
To select words for the bee, officials pull from a variety of sources, Cradduck said, from online to classroom reading programs to ninth-grade level vocabulary. A computer program randomizes the order of the words. The competition included words as simple as “pen” and obscure as “latitudinarian.”
Solenn Matuska will go on to the Los Angeles County Spelling Bee at the Almansor Golf Course in Alhambra on March 28.
“She is a good little speller, so it was nice to see her win this year,” Cradduck said.