Fourth-grader Jae Canetti, 10, was greeted with a standing ovation from classmates at Hunters Woods Elementary School on Monday, marking his return to school after a week of competing in the Scripps National Spelling Bee at National Harbor in Maryland.
The pint-sized preteen won the Fairfax County spelling bee in March, and competed in the national bee this past week. Jae made it to the semifinal round of the bee, spelling “riant,” “stenohaline” and “habendum” correctly before bowing out on “grundriss” — a German word for a type of building floor plan.
“That’s the only time I’ll ever use that word,” Jae said, adding he felt relieved more than anything after being knocked out of the bee. One of the younger spellers competing this year, Jae has four years of eligibility moving forward. Contest rules limit spellers from competing if they reach their 15th birthday on or before Aug. 31 of the current school year. Additionally, students must be in eighth grade or lower during the contest year.
“I wasn’t even expecting to win the Fairfax County bee. So, when I went to nationals … when my name was called for the semis, I went crazy,” Jae said. “On stage, I didn’t feel any pressure because I wasn’t expecting to win. … I always go through a routine, whether it’s [spelling a word during] a class bee or the county bee or the national bee. I ask all the questions.”
Jae’s routine includes asking for a word’s definition, usage in a sentence, part of speech, entomology, alternative pronunciation and root word when allowed.
Jae’s mother, Catherine Kwon, said students at his school watched as the bee was broadcasted on ESPN. Hunters Woods Elementary School for the Arts and Sciences, which is located in Reston, is one of two elementary school magnets with a gifted and talented program. Jae, a Fairfax resident, is a gifted and talented center student at the school.
“The teacher said it was kind of like watching the Super Bowl. Kids came in from recess to watch,” Kwon said.
Hunters Woods Principal Olivia Toatley said bee competitions are points of excitement among students.
“It’s a big deal here…We have a number of participants who practice after school and with their families.”
Jae’s fourth-grade teacher, Jolie Kelly, described Jae as, “Unusually academically gifted. For example, Jae completed seventh and eighth grade math this year. He is exceptionally well rounded.”
She added Jae is an example for other students of what can happen when you set a goal and work hard to achieve it.
Perhaps surprisingly for someone who spells so well, Jae’s favorite subjects do not include spelling or English but instead physical education, math and recess.
In preparing for the bee, Jae’s parents said they were concerned about the level of stress that can come from competing in a nationally televised competition.
“One of the questions we had going in was, we told Jae to really try to enjoy this experience and think about whether you want to do this again,” Kwon said. “Jae has such a wonderful time.”
Jae’s father Craig Canetti said the students participating in the event were very kind with each other and understood the competition was meant to be fun.
Jae said, “People always take the mindset that it’s not speller versus speller but speller versus dictionary and the speller always wins.”
He said he is hoping to compete in future years and that the competition offers gifted students an opportunity to compete while having fun.
“It’s not about kids having to spell nearly impossible words,” Jae said. “It’s for kids like me. Not to brag, but kids like me, who kind of excel at everything, feel kind of lonely [and can] kind of fit in with a crowd and meet friends.”