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Black Teen Runs Hoops Around Spelling Bee Competitors


FILE - Zaila Avant-garde, 14, from Harvey, La., celebrates with the championship trophy after winning the finals of the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee at Disney World, July 8, 2021, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

An African-American teenager from Louisiana has won the National Spelling Bee, only the second Black competitor to win the prestigious annual contest.

Zaila Avant-garde, 14, jumped and twirled with joy upon being declared the winner after nailing the spelling of “murraya,” a genus of tropical Asiatic and Australian citrus trees.

“I was pretty relaxed on the subject of murraya, and pretty much any other word I got,” Zaila said.

Zaila said she hopes to inspire other African Americans who might not understand the appeal of spelling or can't afford to pursue it. The only previous Black winner of the bee was also the only international winner: Jody-Anne Maxwell of Jamaica in 1998.

"Maybe they don't have the money to pay $600 for a spelling program, they don't have access to that," Zaila said.

Success takes resources

The bee has been rightly celebrated as a showcase for students of color — a speller of South Asian descent has been the champion or co-champion of every bee since 2008 — but Zaila is not the first speller to point out issues with economic diversity.

Indian Americans are the wealthiest U.S. ethnic group, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, and Indian professionals who immigrate to the U.S. have access to a network of bees and other academic competitions targeting their community.

J. Michael Durnil, the bee's executive director, said he hopes to make more resources available to spellers who can't access elite-level training.

"It's really important to me that a student anywhere in the country or a parent or a sponsor watches the bee on [Thursday] and says, 'I see myself there, I want to be there and there is a clear pathway to try to get there,' " Durnil said.

Many top performers at the Scripps National Spelling Bee start competing as young as kindergarten. Zaila started only a few years ago, after her father, Jawara Spacetime, watched the bee on TV and realized his daughter's affinity for doing complicated math in her head could translate well to spelling.

She progressed quickly enough to make it to nationals in 2019 but bowed out in the preliminary rounds. The 2020 spelling bee was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

That's when she started to take it more seriously and began working with a private coach, Cole Shafer-Ray, a 20-year-old Yale student and the 2015 Scripps runner-up.

Different approach

“Usually, to be as good as Zaila, you have to be well-connected in the spelling community. You have to have been doing it for many years,” Shafer-Ray said.

“She really just had a much different approach than any speller I've ever seen. She basically knew the definition of every word that we did, like, pretty much verbatim,” he said. “She knew not just the word but the story behind the word, why every letter had to be that letter and couldn't be anything else.”

Zaila — whose father changed her last name to Avant-garde in honor of black jazz musician John Coltrane — is not only a world-class speller.

She excels in basketball, too, having garnered three Guinness world records for dribbling multiple balls simultaneously. She hopes to one day play in the WNBA or even coach in the NBA. And she’s appeared in a commercial with basketball star Stephen Curry.

She described spelling as a hobby, even though she routinely practiced for seven hours a day.

“I kind of thought I would never be into spelling again, but I'm also happy that I'm going to make a clean break from it,” Zaila said. “I can go out, like my Guinness world records, just leave it right there, and walk off.”

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.

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