How do you spell “superstitious”?
For Akshra Paimagam – the Randolph Middle School eighth-grader who won the 2017 Charlotte Observer Spelling Bee on Monday at ImaginOn’s Wells Fargo Playhouse – it’s like this: “w-i-n-t-e-r j-a-c-k-e-t.”
The same winter jacket, in fact, that she was wearing when she won the regional competition two years ago as a 12-year-old. She’s grown a little since then. So the coat definitely looks too small in the arms now. And is that a little dirt on the sleeves?
“She hasn’t washed it since then,” her father, Prem Paimagam, said with a laugh after she received her trophy.
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“Yeah, my friends are like, ‘Eww!’ ” Akshra said. But hey, that’s how good-luck charms work, she acknowledged.
Although a little skill helps, too. Or, in her case, it helps a lot.
Over the course of 3 1/2 hours of competition, Akshra outlasted 26 other contestants from 13 North Carolina and South Carolina counties by correctly spelling words like “tchotchke,” “peacenik,” “pastina,” “imprecatory,” “chronotype,” “dunlin” and “lysis” – all of which, incidentally, get flagged as unknown words by the automated spell-checking feature in the software used to write this story.
She locked up the victory on Monday by mastering “decumbiture,” defined by Merriam-Webster’s dictionary as “confinement to a sickbed,” or “the time of taking to one’s bed from sickness.”
Asked afterward whether she was familiar with the word that won her the title, Akshra simply said: “Yes, I have. I take Latin, so I know the roots.”
Fourth-grader Daniel Wei of Antioch Elementary School in Matthews finished third (eliminated after misspelling “goosander”), and last year’s champion – Eva Vega, now a seventh-grader at Carmel Christian School – was this year’s runner-up after incorrectly spelling “mellophone.”
“That was a really tricky word, because there are so many sounds in the word where you can mess up,” Akshra said afterward, “and she did a really good job of constructing the word. She just missed one L. But I would say that was pretty much the toughest word at the bee.”
Eva was second to Akshra in 2015, but didn’t have to worry about her on the way to winning last year – because Akshra had fallen short of qualifying for the event. It was a devastating moment for Akshra, knocked out by the word “siphon” in one of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ “learning community” bees, a precursor to the district finals (which feed into the Observer bee).
“I was just really shocked, because I had high hopes last year,” Akshra said, “but I vowed that I would do better.”
With the win, Akshra earned her second all-expenses-paid trip to the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., where in 2015 she placed 39th out of nearly 300 spellers.
And when she heads north again this May to try to top that effort, she’ll of course do so with her lucky jacket in her suitcase. As for whether she’ll wash it between now and then, Akshra spells it out pretty simply:
“Nope,” she said, with a grin, as she clutched at her too-short sleeves. “Not planning on it.”
Charlotte Observer Spelling Bee prizes
For first place, Akshra Paimagam received: An all-expenses-paid trip for two to the National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., courtesy of The Charlotte Observer; a Merriam-Webster Unabridged Online Subscription, courtesy of Merriam-Webster; and a Samuel Louis Sugarman Award certificate for a 2017 United States Mint Proof Set.
For second place, Eva Vega received: A $250 Visa gift card and a $25 Barnes & Noble gift card, both courtesy of The Charlotte Observer.
For third place, Daniel Wei received: A $150 Visa gift card and a $25 Barnes & Noble gift card, both courtesy of The Charlotte Observer.