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Posted 3/21/2014

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By Sean McBride
Public Affairs Specialist


"Phenomenon."

That was the word that haunted Joseph Ebai for a year after the 2013 Berkeley County Spelling Bee. The competition was down to just him and one other contestant and he spelled "phenomenon" incorrectly.

"I was stressed out," says Ebai. "I was really nervous and I got flustered and it threw me off."

Ebai is now an eighth grader at Cane Bay Middle School. He’s been participating in spelling bees since the third grade, but now has a rhythm that has led to his success.

"I spend about an hour to three hours practicing almost every night," says Ebai. "You have to learn the etymology of words and their suffixes and prefixes. You also have to learn about definitions because they give you insight on which root words you should be using, the language of origin, and sometimes the spelling patterns."

Ebai’s family, including his father, George, who is an economist with the Charleston District’s planning and environmental branch, practices with him by reading words and answering the questions that he would ask during a competition. Sometimes they have trouble pronouncing the words correctly and Ebai has to correct them.

"When we’re practicing, I’ll mix up the words and he’ll catch me," says George. "We’ll be working on words from one language origin and I’ll randomly throw in a word from a different origin and he’ll point it out."

So, after vigorous practicing for another year, Ebai was ready for the 2014 Berkeley County Spelling Bee in January where 40 students prepared to get any of the potential 3,000 words that could be used.

"This year, they gave us a lot harder words in the beginning and easier later," says Ebai. "I said to myself ‘Why are they using the easier words now?’ but I think they wanted to get rid of the other kids quickly and know who was serious about winning."

Ebai had to spell approximately 15 words in the competition, such as "aphasia," "mammalian," and "hoi polloi." That one was hard because the spelling bee moderator would not say if the word should be spelled as a compound word or two separate words. Turns out he spelled it as one word and the judges gave him credit.

When he’s in his seat waiting his turn, Ebai will practice spelling out, in his head, the words that other competitors are getting and write them on his hand with his finger.

"Sometimes they will get a word that I don’t know so I’m happy that I didn’t get that word," says Ebai. "Some of it’s luck that if I had gotten one of those words then I would have gotten out."

When it was down to just two spellers left, Ebai and his competitor went back and forth for several words before the competitor misspelled the word "innate" by leaving out an "n." The rules of the competition state that if one person gets a word wrong, the remaining speller must spell that same word correctly and then spell one additional word. Ebai spelled it correctly and was then given the word "guitar" for the win.

"I didn’t think there was any other word in a different language that sounds like that, so I paused, but then I spelled it quickly," says Ebai. "When I won, I felt great and my heart was leaping for joy."

Ebai’s father couldn’t contain his excitement either.

"I’m proud of him because he works hard and sets very high goals for himself," said George. "He wants to be a neurosurgeon and is very self-motivated. He’s gifted and has been in the gifted program since third grade. One year, he swept every prize from his school in every subject."

Now, Ebai will head to the regional Spellbound! spelling bee and face off against competitors in Berkeley, Charleston, Colleton and Dorchester County schools. The first, second and third place finishers from each of these county’s spelling bees advance to this competition. It was here last year where he finished in third overall and beat the girl who had finished ahead of him in the county competition.

"I’m feeling confident, but nervous," says Ebai.

Spellbound! will be held on March 11 at Charleston Southern University. The winner will then advance to the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., this summer. The entire Charleston District team will be watching and rooting for Ebai to bring home the crown.

*Update- at time of publication, Ebai finished fifth place at Spellbound!

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