There will be no fairy tale ending to the story of the young boy who, on a whim, entered and won his school’s spelling bee , and then won a regional bee to earn a spot in the national finals.
The 93rd Scripps National Spelling Bee, which was to begin Sunday, was canceled last month due to ongoing concerns about the spread of the novel coronavirus and uncertainty about when public gatherings would be possible.
“When I heard the news, it was a bummer I have to say,” said Bennett Wagner, an eighth-grade student at Casey Middle School in East Amherst, Erie County.
Bennett was the winner of the Western New York Regional Spelling Bee presented Feb. 29 by The Daily News and The Livingston County News at Le Roy Junior-Senior High School.
In the weeks since the regional bee, Bennett – or Ben, as he is often called – had been spending time learning the roots of words and reading ““Words of Wisdom” by Scott B. Remer, a popular book among those competing at the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
“It had helped me a lot,” Bennett said of the book, a gift from 2019 regional winner, Emily Mike of Mount Morris. “It taught me how to use different types of roots to figure out how to spell a word.”
Even if he was unfamiliar with a word, knowing its roots– which he could derive from questions spellers are allowed to ask – would provide clues to the correct spelling.
“We were disappointed, definitely,” Bennett’s mother, Joy Russell, said of the cancelation. “We wanted Ben to have the experience. But we understand they are looking out for everyone’s safety.”
The national bee was first postponed March 20. Then, a month later it was canceled. More than 150 sponsors – out of more than 500 expected – had completed regional programs and declared champions before the coronavirus-related restrictions went into effect.
The Bee had considered the possibility of a virtual bee, but concluded it would be too difficult logistically and not true to the spirit of the competition – which is as intense as any on-the-field athletic competition.
“Our thoughts immediately go to our spellers and their families,” said Paige Kimble, executive director of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. “The students have dedicated time and effort to their passion for learning. They should be proud of all they have accomplished by winning spelling bees at the classroom, school and regional level.
“Nevertheless, our first priority has to be the health and well-being of our spellers and their families and the hundreds of staff and spectators that come together for ‘Bee Week,’” Kimble said.
The Bee said it will recognize those spellers in the coming months.
“We’re looking forward to that,” said Russell. “It was definitely a good experience for Ben.”
Bennett outlasted a field of 28 spellers- all sixth- through eighth-grade students from the area between Buffalo and Rochester – to win the 10-round regional competition. His championship word was “jackboot,” but along the way the animated and expressive competitor also spelled such words as “copper,” “bruxism,” “Paleozoic” and “unctuous.”
Upon winning, Bennett covered his face with his hands, shook his head and spun around on stage. Eventually, he sprinted down the aisle and jumped into the arms of his father, Keith Wagner.
Bennett, an animated and expressive competitor, was also a humble winner, acknowledging his excitement at winning, but also saying he was a little sad for those who did not win.
To get there, Bennett won his middle school spelling bee that he “just decided one day to sign up” for. He said he did his school bee just for the experience.
As for the fate of the national bee, Bennett said, “I understand why they had to do it with all the current events.”
Bennett has been out of school since mid-March after Casey Middle School closed along with schools across New York State as a result of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s executive orders to try and slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
Most of Bennett’s extracurricular activities were canceled, though he was able to continue private music lessons – he plays trumpet – for a time, and kept in touch with his computer programming club, The Coder School, through online gatherings via Google Meets.
For school, he’s been doing a lot of online assignments.
“I’ve been able to cope,” he said. “High school is coming in the fall. I don’t know what that will be like; it could be online again.”
The Scripps National Spelling Bee plans to return next year. It is scheduled June 1 to 3, 2021, in National Harbor, Md.
But that’s little consolation for students such as Bennett who as eighth graders will have aged out of next year’s competition. Scripps said it will not change eligibility requirements for 2021. The Bee has always been restricted to elementary and middle school students.
“Our hearts go out to the spellers who won’t get their final shot at winning because of the pandemic and the difficult decisions it is prompting us to make,” said Kimble, a former competitor at the national bee. “They are now part of a widely expanding group of children and adults who are missing out on opportunities due to the coronavirus.”
This year marks the only time since World War II (1943-1945) that the Bee has canceled the national finals since the program’s inception in 1925.
Bennett said he was disappointed, but also shared a positive outlook: “I had already won two spelling bees,” he said, “and it’s been a good experience the whole way.”