He sits at one of the wooden tables in the school library, surrounded by novels on low shelves and colorful art that hangs from the ceiling. He’s focused on a large red book in front of him: Merriam Webster’s New World Dictionary.
“This isn’t the fun one,” he says.
Only a word wizard like him would know which dictionary is fun.
He gets up and walks to the corner of the library to get the dictionary he prefers. He returns with a much larger gray tome full of medical terms and other jargon that wouldn’t interest the average teenager. He sits with it in his lap, flipping through hundreds of thin pages, a look of concentration on his face. This is his definition of enjoyment. This dictionary is what he uses to memorize the spellings of words. After all, he is the Texas state spelling bee champion.
Lokesh, an eighth grader, has always had a passion for words. He started spelling competitively when he was in first grade.
“I’ve always liked words,” he says. “The spelling bee seemed to be a good thing to broaden my horizons on words.”
Although he lost in round one of his first spelling bee, he came back the next year and won. Since then, he has succeeded in every spelling bee. Today he is one of the best spellers in the nation.
Spelling comes naturally to Lokesh. Even though words that are given in spelling bees are often rooted in other languages, Lokesh, who speaks English as well as several Indian languages, enjoys learning the derivatives of all kinds of words. It’s what he loves to talk about.
“You really want to look at languages, their patterns and the English language,” Lokesh says. “If you know those languages … it can help, but it can also hinder you. For example, you could be using rules that in Spanish may seem correct, but when it got Anglicized, the rules don’t make sense anymore.”
Some languages’ rules are harder to learn than others, according to Lokesh. He says that Irish Gaelic, Yiddish, and Hebrew have seemingly random rules, often don’t follow a particular pattern, and can sometimes change when translated to English. “Once they get Anglicized, I don’t know whether it’s completely Anglicized, halfway there, or the native spelling,” Lokesh says.
For example, a cc in Italian makes the ch sound in English – so in the Italian word cacciatore there is a ch noise and the i is silent, which can make spelling the word difficult. But it’s perfecting these kinds of spelling rules that interests him the most.
To master his skills, Lokesh has worked with a spelling coach since the fourth grade. The duo spend hours poring over rules so Lokesh knows what rules to follow and use as competition strategies. This helped him reach the Scripps National Spelling Bee, the most prestigious spelling contest in the nation.
After advancing past the class, district, and county spelling bees, Lokesh went on to compete in the The Dallas Morning News Regional Spelling Bee, a statewide competition. He won in the 14th round by correctly spelling the word mastoiditis, which is an infection of the skull behind the ear. He participated in the same event the previous three years, each time finishing runner-up. But this year, he finally took home the first place trophy.
After this year, Lokesh will not be able to participate in the Scripps National Spelling Bee again since it isn’t offered to students past eighth grade. “Nationals is where every speller wants to go,” he says. “You get to spell these amazingly weird words that nobody’s ever seen before, much less heard about or used in an actual sentence.”
Despite the fact that he may have to spell some unusual words, Lokesh says he’s not nervous. He likes standing on stage, anticipating the next word. The challenge of being asked to spell unfamiliar words is exciting for him. To Lokesh, the only competition is between himself and the dictionary.
Lokesh, one of 281 contestants, will be competing against some of the best spellers in the nation. But no matter what happens, he keeps one simple task in mind.
“I just have to spell the word,” Lokesh says. “If I know the word, I know it, and if I don’t know it, I’m just gonna give it my best bet.”
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.
This piece won the March 2015 Teen Ink Nonfiction Contest.