A couple of days before winning Sunday’s Fairfax County Spelling Bee at Hayfield Secondary School, 10-year-old Jae Canetti had a gut feeling the title was his to lose.
Surprisingly, Jae’s optimism had little to do with the fact that he’d finished a close second in last year’s bee or he’d spent the past year devouring 500-page books and 1,000-word spelling lists.
Instead, it was a fortune cookie that had boosted the fourth-grader’s confidence.
“We were at Wegman’s, and I got this,” said Jae, reaching into his pocket to retrieve a tiny slip of paper. “It says, ‘Your hard work is about to pay off.’ When I opened that cookie, I knew I was going to win.”
A few other factors might have played a part as well.
Competing against 57 other spellers who ranged in age from 7 to 14, Jae took each of the 19 words bee pronouncer Blake Giddens tossed his way and methodically knocked them down.
When Longfellow Middle School seventh-grader William Furlong substituted an ‘i’ for a ‘y’ in tympanum, Jae strolled to the microphone knowing he was one word away from a trip to the Scripps National Spelling Bee later this spring.
As soon as Giddens asked him to spell haberdashery, a smile creased Jae’s face as he uttered “I know this one” into the microphone.
That didn’t prevent him from going through his standard list of questions with Giddens.
“Definition, please?” asked Jae, who attends Hunters Woods Elementary School in Reston.
“The shop of a dealer in men’s furnishings,” Giddens responded.
“Sure,” Giddens said. “Richard and Simon went to the haberdashery to find ascots to wear to the formal dinner.”
“Part of speech, please.”
“It’s an Anglo-French word.”
“Alternate pronunciations, please.”
“I have only haberdashery,” Giddens said.
“Repeat the word, please.”
“Repeat the word one more time, please.”
“Haberdashery,” Giddens said.
“OK,” Jae said. “Haberdashery. H-A-B-E-R-D-A-S-H-E-R-Y.”
With that, Jae ended a three-hour drama whose central characters included runner-up William and third-place finisher Shruti Anant, a seventh-grader at Herndon’s Nysmith School For the Gifted who edged Jae out for the title a year earlier. On Sunday, Shruti ripped through 13 words before bowing out on ‘fealty’ in round 14.
Other youngsters who’ll be heard from in future years are fourth-place finisher Samantha Fisher, a fourth-grader from Classical Conversations School, and Ibrahim Ismail, a third0grader from Weyanoke Elementary School who hung around for seven rounds and managed to spell words such as hemerocallis, infinitesimal and holi.
When asked if any of the 281 words Giddens mentioned throughout the contest would have stumped him, Jae’s didn’t hesitate, “I knew ‘em all.”
Jae’s mom, Catherine, nodded.
“Last year, he probably did more guessing, but he studied a lot of words this year,” Catherine said.
In addition to studying up on words such as ‘vaquero’ and ‘evanesce’, Jae pitches and catches for his Little League baseball team, has a strong command of two musical instruments (clarinet and saxophone), and excels in Algebra I, a subject most students take in eighth grade.
When he travels to the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. in early June, Jae likely will compete against his share of eighth-graders once again.
“I’m ready,” he says, a smile never leaving his face.