Here’s a twist: A spelling bee that ends in a tie. That’s just what happened in Kansas City two weeks ago, but rules are rules, and there can be only one winner.
So, winners Sophia Hoffman and Kush Sharma will compete once more Saturday morning, and this time there will be a victor.
Eleven-year-old Sophia is a wisp of a girl with blonde hair. She goes to school at Highland Park Elementary in Lee’s Summit, Mo. She’s frequently studies for the spelling bee, sitting on the couch in her living room.
Sophia's sister, Jordan, gives her the word “madeleine,” and Sophia quickly asks, “Definition, please?” After learning, it’s a French pastry, she correctly spells it.
Spelling bee is a tradition in the Hoffman household. Jordan placed 8th in the Scripps National Spelling Bee in 2012, but now it’s Sophia’s turn. She started on the other side of things as a Kindergartner feeding her sister words.
“It was always exciting to quiz her, and I thought it might always be exciting to spell the words. And it is,” says Sophia.
On February 22, that excitement was palpable at the Jackson County Spelling Bee. Sophia and 13-year-old Kush Sharma from Frontier School of Innovation in Kansas City were in a spell-off, going round after round after round
“I was a little nervous,” says Sophia. “I knew that Kush and I had both really prepared.”
Prepared is an understatement. They made it through 66 rounds.
Librarian Kaite Stover was the head judge that morning. She’s been involved with the Jackson County Spelling bee since the library took it over three years ago. She says there’s only one difference between the head judge and other judges.
“I’m the one brave enough to ring a bell when students misspell a word,” says Stover.
But she never had to ring that bell for either Sophia or Kush.
You would think 300 words would be enough to whittle the two dozen competitors down to just one, but they weren’t. So Stover and the other judges took a lunch break, and they started leafing through the dictionary, looking for more words to test them on.
“It took us an hour to find more words,” says Stover. “And we were looking for words that were not completely archaic and uncommon.”
And that’s when it got a little more complicated for the spellers. These were words they hadn’t studied, so Kush and Sophia had to rely on their knowledge of prefixes, suffixes, and word origins.
Kush says he thought the words posed a new challenge
“If you just break it up, and just try to find a pattern in each word, it’ll just be simpler,” says Kush.
That seems to have worked for Kush. After five and a half hours, organizers had to call it a day.
“We really did run out of words to give the spellers,” says Stover.
Going so many rounds is pretty rare, but it happened twice this year. In DeKalb County, Illinois two spellers went 74 rounds.
Since the tie, Kush and Sophia have appeared on CNN and Good morning America, which Kush says he finds unsettling.
“To be honest, like when the calls all started coming in about it, y'know, I was just thinking in my mind, ‘I’m not used to this. I’m really not used to it.’”
One upside of all the joint media appearances they’ve done is that it’s led to a friendship. When they get to that final word and one of them gets it wrong, Kush says they’ll try not to take it personally.
“I don’t think we see at as I beat her or she beats me,” says Kush. “I think it’s like the word beat me.”
Kush, Sophia and their families have been lobbying to send both students to the national bee. But Scripps' Spelling Bee officials say that’s not going to happen, so they’re both preparing for Saturday’s unusual spell off.
The Jackson County Spelling Bee resumes at 9 a.m. Saturday at the Kansas City Public Library Central Branch.