When McNair Elementary School student and Herndon resident Akshita Balaji won the 2019 Fairfax County Spelling Bee on Mar. 17, cheers could be heard on the other side of the world.
Akshita’s grandfather in India stayed up all night waiting for the call that eventually came in at 3:00 a.m. informing him of his granddaughter’s victory.
“It was really, really exciting moment for the family and our family back home,” Akshita’s father, Balaji Kannan, said. “We cherish the moment when she was called as champion for Fairfax County, especially being in the toughest county, so we are very proud.”
Akshita beat 72 other elementary and middle school students to become the 2019 Fairfax County Spelling Bee champion and earn the opportunity to compete in the Scripps National Spelling Bee at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Md., during the last week of May.
The culmination of nearly 80 separate bees held by local parent-teacher associations throughout Fairfax County and Alexandria City, the 2019 Fairfax County Spelling Bee took place on Mar. 17 at the Lake Braddock Secondary School auditorium in Burke.
The Fairfax County Council of PTAs served as the bee’s sponsoring organization with FCCPTA Spelling Bee Chair Eliza Morss working with local PTAs to train their bee organizers.
Morss also contacts sponsors to raise the funds needed to send the county bee champion to the national competition. This year’s sponsors contributed $6,000 and included local realtor Pat Stack, STEM excel, and the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, along with several friend and in-kind sponsors, according to FCCPTA president Jane Miscavage.
Akshita won with her spelling of “jonquil,” a type of daffodil with yellow or white flowers, after 14 rounds, including a nerve-racking finale where both she and the runner-up, Pinnacle Academy eighth grader Fetin Hussain, made some mistakes.
“I was shocked,” Akshita said of her eventual triumph. “It felt like a dream come true. My hard work was all paying off.”
For Akshita, a Herndon resident, the journey to winning the Fairfax County Spelling Bee and advancing to the national stage began about five years ago when she lived in India.
Born in the U.S., Akshita moved to India with her family for part of her childhood, and she still remembers watching the annual Scripps bee on television and being dazzled by the possibility of competing with her peers to spell words.
With the encouragement of her grandfather and the assistance of her parents, Akshita competed in her first spelling bee when she was in first grade.
Now, as a sixth-grader, Akshita has made a habit out of studying the lists of words that Kannan and her mother, Sumitra Sampath, compile every week. They quiz her regularly and sometimes come up with songs to help her remember vocabulary rules.
An avid reader, Akshita says she enjoys exploring different languages and learning the variations between them. Her current favorite word is weissnichtwo, a Germanic word that refers to “an indefinite, unknown, or imaginary place,” according to Merriam-Webster.
“I like the way that you put together the letters with the pronunciation and how there are so many different language patterns for every language. It’s unique for each word,” Akshita said.
This was the third time that Akshita has made it to the Fairfax County Spelling Bee and her first year winning, though she finished as the runner-up in 2018.
Akshita’s younger sister, Ankita, has also found some success as a speller, placing fifth at last year’s bee. She currently attends Floris Elementary School.
The spelling bee, in other words, continues to be a family affair for Akshita.
When she travels to National Harbor in May for the Scripps National Spelling Bee, she will do so in the company of not just her parents and sister, but also her grandfather, who plans to fly to the U.S. from India to watch Akshita compete.
Even with the pressure of living up to her family’s expectations as well as her own, Akshita says she views this year’s Scripps spelling bee primarily as an opportunity to get experience, and she has no plans on relenting in her quest to learn, regardless of how she fares.
“I want knowledge of the words so I can be more prepared for next time,” Akshita said.