Local speller takes fourth in state bee

ATLANTA - April Cooper had two reasons to celebrate at Friday's state spelling bee.

The Chattahoochee Elementary School teacher was there to cheer on fifth-grader Sujith Cherukumilli, who lasted through 10 words and finished fourth in the spelling competition.

But then there was a surprise: Nandhini Sundaresan, who had been in Cooper's first-grade class at Chattahoochee, was in the bee, too. And she was on a spelling spree.

In fact, Nandhini took the state bee's top prize and will represent Georgia at the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., in May.

The Webb Bridge Middle School seventh-grader left the Gwinnett County schools when her family moved after third grade, but her mother, Meena Kunjithapatham, said Cooper encouraged her daughter's love of reading, helping her become an award-winning speller.

"Teachers in the primary levels influence kids a lot," Kunjithapatham said. "I couldn't believe my eyes. She recognized Nandhini on stage. We could never forget her."

Nandhini, who spelled 11 words correctly in head-to-head competition against Cobb County's Aaron Kauffman, won the competition after correctly spelling "catenate" - which Kauffman missed - and "paucity."

Last year, she finished fifth in the state.

Nandhini said she doesn't think she's a better speller than any of the other 19 competitors, but instead got lucky by getting words she knew - words like "empanada," "pituitary," "embrocation" and "endentulous."

"I don't think I'm better than anyone else here," Nandhini said. "I'm excited, but I think everyone else did a good job, too."

Sundar Sundaresan, Nandhini's father, said he wasn't expecting his daughter to do so well. He didn't even bring a camera to the competition, but had to go outside to take a walk during the bee because he couldn't bear the stress of watching his daughter compete.

In Sujith's cheering section, which included his parents, Cooper, Chattahoochee Elementary School Principal Cyndie Burgess and two of his friends, his fans covered their eyes as he began to spell and pumped their fists when he got a word right.

Sujith said the hardest word he had to spell - besides "asphyxiation," the word he got out on - was "axletree" in the second round. Sujith asked for the definition, then simply combined words he already knew, "axle" and "tree," for success.

Other words he spelled correctly included "perlingual," "catalytic," "infiltration" and "clavicle."

Sujith said he studied for the bee almost every day but will spend more hours practicing in anticipation of next year's competitions. He inspired one friend, fifth-grader Nolan Graham, to challenge him next year for the spelling title.

"We got really scared every time he got up," Nolan said. "We thought, 'Uh-oh, I hope he spells this one.' I really liked it. It's the first time I've ever been to a spelling bee."

Sujith, who can compete until he is in eighth grade, said he'll be vying for the top spot and a trip to Washington, D.C., next year. Srinivas Cherukumilli, Sujith's father, said he had low expectations coming into the bee, but expects his son to do even better in the future.

"I was very pleasantly surprised that he hung on," Cherukumilli said. "He has a wonderful school, excellent teachers. You can see them twitching in their chairs every time a word comes up."

Cooper, who said she was cheering for both Sujith and Nandhini, called both spellers extremely motivated. She expects to see Sujith in future spelling competitions.

"I'm proud of both of them, no doubt," she said. "Sujith can do anything when he puts his mind to it."