By STEVEN NALLEY
It began with a rivalry between two best friends.
Starkville Academy sixth grader Bates Bennett and seventh grader Garrett Smith both play multiple sports, including baseball, football, soccer and basketball, and both are very competitive. Bennett said he met Smith playing on the same soccer team, and the two forged a friendship while comparing the goals they scored against each other. In third grade, he said, this rivalry extended to a competition of a different kind.
“My teacher brought me to the (Starkville Academy) spelling bee,” Bennett said. “My best friend (Smith) was in it, and he won, and I said I wanted to beat him, because if he beat me, he’d probably rub it in my face my entire life.”
Bennett hasn’t lost a bee since, and on Saturday, he took first place in the regional Mid-South Spelling Bee in Memphis, Tenn., earning a trip to Washington, D.C. for the Scripps National Spelling Bee May 28-30.
The national bee will bring together spellers from not only the U.S., but also the Bahamas, Canada, China, Ghana, Jamaica, Japan, Korea and several U.S. Department of Defense Schools in Europe and U.S. territories. Those who advance to the bee’s final rounds will compete live on ESPN.
Smith said he was happy for Bennett, even though he had hoped to be the first to appear on ESPN between the two. He said he hadn’t competed in spelling bees since he was in fifth grade, but he still liked to give Bennett a run for his money in the other sports they played.
“I was looking at some of the words he had (to spell) from different languages,” Smith said. “It just blows my mind. I can’t believe he could memorize that many words.”
Bates’ mother, Kim Bennett, said there were indications early on that Bates had a gift for spelling. When he was two years old, she said, Bates told Garrett’s father Brad Smith that he could spell anything. Brad asked him to spell ‘people,’ she said, thinking the word might trick Bates. It didn’t.
“Bates spelled it correctly,” Kim said. “Brad was amazed at this and has never let him forget this. This is the first word any of us remember Bates spelling, so why he told Brad he could spell anything, we don’t know. Bates’ dad and I are amazed at his determination and drive to learn how to spell these words and (learn) all their definitions. Bates and I both know that his ability to spell and his determination to succeed comes from God ... and Bates is extremely thankful for this ability.”
Kim said Bates also had formidable talents in the sports he played, taking part in a U10 Challenge soccer team that won the state championship, an SA sixth grade football team that went undefeated and won the district championship and the All-Star baseball team three years in a row. She also said Bates blended physical activity with his preparation for the bees.
“I call out words to him while (he is) walking or shooting basketball. If you see Bates and I walking around town, Bates is practicing spelling,” Kim said. “Bates studies about 30 minutes a night for spelling. When a (spelling) bee gets close, he and I will walk for hours calling out words and spelling.”
Bates said the regional bee ended with a close call. When two contestants remain in a bee and one misses a word, he said the one who did not miss must spell a final “championship word” to win. Otherwise, he said, both spellers resume competition.
Bates said he missed his first championship word, “bumptiously,” which Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines as “presumptuously, obtusely, and often noisily self-assertive.” Bates said he thought he heard an “n” where there was an “m,” and it was not the first close call he had due to a misheard word.
“I missed (a championship word) in fourth grade at district when there were two left,” Bates said. “I think they gave me ‘Miso,’ and I thought they said ‘Mesa.’”
Bates’ winning word at regionals this year was “equipoise,” defined as “a state of equilibrium.” Eliza Miller, K-4 art teacher, organizes SA’s spelling bees and registers winners for bees they are qualified for, and she said equipoise was exactly what Bates showed as he shook off the close call and won.
“He’s cool as a cucumber,” Miller said. “We’re sitting there, and we have all the nerves. He’s a very methodical speller. He spells slowly, he enunciates (and) he does everything by the book.”
Kim said the regional win was the latest in a long winning record for Bates. Ever since fourth grade, she said, Bates had won not only the SA spelling bee for his grade, but also SA’s overall spelling bees.
“It was a big accomplishment for him to win the overall bee as the youngest participant. He has won (Mississippi Association of Independent Schools’) District Bee for fourth, fifth and sixth grade,” Kim said. “He has won MAIS State Bee for fourth and fifth grade, and he will compete at the sixth grade MAIS State Bee on April 16 of this year.”
Miller said SA had competed in MAIS bees exclusively for the past several years. In order to reach the regional and national bees, Miller said, Bates had to enter and win the Oktibbeha County Spelling Bee — something SA spellers had not done for some time due to confusion over how many students SA could send.
Miller said this confusion had since been resolved, and while Bates was SA’s sole representative this year, she hoped to send more next year. She said she wanted to register SA’s fourth, fifth and sixth graders as an elementary school and its seventh and eighth graders as a junior high school, because Bates’ victory had caused others throughout the school to express interest in competing next year.
“They’ve got spelling bee fever now, thanks to Bates,” Miller said. “Hopefully, our program will just continue to get bigger and better. We’re planning on having an earlier bee next year so that our spellers will have more time to prepare for (the county bee). He’s gotten all the kids excited, especially third graders like my little boy and (Bates’ own) little brother. (My son) Dylan was asking me today, ‘Is it possible for a fourth grader to go to the National Spelling Bee?”
In fact, the only age limit Scripps lists on its National Spelling Bee website is an upper limit of eighth grade or age 15. Bates said he had seen the bee fever for himself, particularly when he told his classmates that an iPad Mini was one of his prizes at regionals. He said he was prepared for tough competition at the school level next year, but Dylan Miller said he was determined to reach the national level, even if it meant getting past Bates.
Dylan said, “I want to go to Washington, D.C.”