Local spellers stopped at state

ATLANTA - A turnip-like vegetable hung up one speller. Another was felled by a dance resembling the polka. And a third was knocked out by a word that means "total."

So went the spellers with Gwinnett connections in the statewide spelling bee, which was won by Bibb County student Shoman Kasbekar, who correctly spelled "ignominious" then "ineradicable" to take the crown over Fulton County resident Nandhini Sundaresan, last year's winner.

Laila Lloyd, a Creekland Middle School eighth-grader, was eliminated with "schottische" - that's the dance - after she left the "E" off the end of the word.

"I was kind of disappointed because I knew that word," she said. "It has 'S-C-H' at the beginning and end. I forgot the 'E,' I was so focused on that."

Laila, who left eight other competitors on stage after her exit, was the best-performing Gwinnett student in Friday's bee. She was the runner-up in the district-wide bee.

Sonam Vashi, a Pinckneyville Middle School eighth- grader, got out on "aggregate" - she replaced the third "G" with a "T" - and Sujith Cherukumilli, a Fulton County student who last year placed fourth in the statewide competition as a Gwinnett resident, missed on "kohlrabi" - the vegetable - after repeated confusion and several challenges.

After the bee, Sujith said he was disappointed in the result, but that the word had just passed through his mind.

When he asked for the word's language of origin, the caller initially said it was Greek, then corrected herself to German. A necessary tape change required the competition to pause, and when it resumed, the caller repeated that the word was of Greek origin.

Syamala Cherukumilli, Sujith's mother, protested the error.

"You're confusing him," she said. "He's going to get confused."

Judges gave Sujith the word's definition and used it in a sentence before asking if he understood. He said yes, but spelled it incorrectly -"colrabi."

At the end of the round, his mother protested again. When that protest fell through, April Cooper, a Gwinnett County teacher, tried her hand at getting him back into the competition, but to no avail.

Cooper said Sujith should have been given the benefit of the doubt, and perhaps a new word to spell after the caller's mistake left him standing at the microphone for several minutes while the judges conferred.

"All these people were looking at him, and he froze," she said. "He got up there and just got nervous waiting. He said, 'All these people were staring at me.' It was hard."

Cindy Gaskins, Gwinnett County's bee coordinator, said she was glad that someone had protested the mistakes. Protests, she said, make the competition tougher.

"If you don't protest, nothing can change. You have to take a chance," she said. "I like to see parents out there with a dictionary, looking words up, knowing words, too. You know the person going to the national bee is very knowledgeable."

Gaskins said Gwinnett was well-represented in the competition, and that she was pleased with the students' work.

Shreya Vashi, Sonam's mother, said she was proud of how far her daughter advanced to get to the statewide bee. She successfully spelled words like "ominous," "predicate" and "obsequious" before getting out.

Sonam, who watched the bee documentary "Spellbound" before the competition, said she enjoyed rooting for Laila after she was eliminated.

"I knew this time was going to be very, very hard," Sonam said. "I didn't know half of them."

Laila correctly spelled words such as "eponym," "pentathlon," "mariachi," "diphthong" and "maelstrom" before she got out.

Her grandparents, an aunt and an uncle were part of her cheering section. Laila's mother, Valerie Lloyd, said she couldn't be more proud of how she did.

Almeta Meredith, Laila's grandmother, said watching her granddaughter compete was an experience she would not miss. She expects her to go on to big things.

"For her to be in it, it was like "Akeelah and the Bee," Meredith said. "She's exceptional. Watch the name Laila Lloyd. She's going to be great some day."