Maury 4th Grader Olivia Coleman Makes Alexandria School History as First National Spelling Bee Competitor

“I don’t have summer plans [to study] but I want to try to do more bees because they’re really fun,” Olivia Coleman said.

Olivia Coleman of Alexandria at the 2019 Scripps National Spelling Bee (Photo by Mark Bowen)

By Orrin Konheim

Alexandria, VA – Matthew Maury Elementary School fourth grader Olivia Coleman concluded her inaugural trip to Scripps National Spelling Bee with one word correctly spelled on stage and enough memories to make her eager for a return trip. It also is a first for the Alexandria City Public Schools who had never sent a speller to the National Bee prior to this year.

“I don’t have summer plans [to study] but I want to try to do more bees because they’re really fun,” said Olivia Coleman.

Coleman was one of just 562 spellers worldwide to compete in Bee Week, which was held at National Harbor’s Gaylord Hotel. In addition to the traditional field of contestants culled from regional and international bee champions, this was the second year in which the Spelling Bee held the RSVBee program that allowed for people from unusually competitive regions as well as those with no regional coverage to also compete. Coleman was in the latter group of 294 RSVBee contestants.

Olivia Coleman with her medal from Maury Elementary. (Photo by Cintia Coleman)

“It’s an amazing thing for the city of Alexandria, and she’s a role model to all other students in Alexandria, and for the city of Alexandria. She didn’t know there was a spelling bee. She threw her hat in the ring, and she beat a couple of sixth grade boys,” said Maury PTA member Anita Sachariah, who ran the school’s inaugural spelling bee.

Coleman won Maury Elementary School’s inaugural spelling bee on the word “prevaricate” out of approximately 70 spellers.

She then went to the Fairfax County Spelling Bee, and while she missed no on-stage words, she didn’t win the Bee due to her score in a preliminary test. Olivia and her family thought that was the end of the journey, but Sacharia let them know about the RSVBee program, and even mailed them the paperwork.

Because the RSVBee route required people to pay an entry fee (rather than the traditional route which comes with a sponsor), it wasn’t an easy decision for the Coleman family.

“When we first started, we debated [both sides] and included Olivia in the conversation as to whether we wanted to try to go this route at all,” said Olivia’s dad Brian Coleman. “Because we wanted to feel like if we contribute something towards this, we made it clear that she had to be willing to contribute something towards it too [in the form of studying] and she did a good job.”

In the interim, the Colemans submitted an application for the RSVBee program. The application highlighted the fact that this would be a first for Alexandria’s grassroots spelling bee program, and that Coleman is fluent in Portuguese. Olivia’s mother, Cintia, arrived here from Porto Alegre, Brazil in 2002 and has dual citizenship.

Traditionally, Bee Week is a great bonding experience for the participants, as they all stay at the same hotel, and the Coleman family was one of the few exceptions as commuters. According to Brian Coleman, the family went through the program and determined which of the Bee Week activities would benefit Olivia. In contrast to other spellers who took a whole week off school, Olivia and her sister Sophia, went to school on some days as well.

“We might have socialized more if we stayed here, but we got to meet a lot of families, and they were super nice with websites and standard groups and what to do to prepare. I think we were very green to the whole experience,” said Coleman’s mother.

“One of the single most valuable things was generally exposing her to an environment in which academic success is celebrated,” added her father.

In her first on-stage round, Olivia Coleman was given the word “histrionics”, which is defined by the Spelling Bee’s official dictionary as a “theatrical performance or deliberate display of emotion for effect.”

Coleman’s first word came from a pre-assigned list of 600 words the students were assigned to spell. She and the other 518 spellers who survived the first round were at the mercy of all 476,000 words listed in Merriam-Webster’s unabridged online dictionary for the next round.

After waiting nearly the entire second day (alphabetical order dictated the spellers from Virginia went towards the end), Coleman stepped onto the stage and was given the word “vermillion”, which is defined as a “vivid reddish orange.”

Of the 519 spelling words in the second round, 22 lucky spellers were afforded an alternate definition and in this case “vermilion” was also acceptable. Neither of those two words, however, coincided with Coleman’s attempt of “vermilian.”

Although she was emotional as she exited the stage, Olivia and her family were proud of the accomplishment on the whole and how far they’d come.

“To be quite honest, we didn’t think any of this was possible after losing before [Anita] gave us the paperwork,” said Cintia Coleman. “My takeaway was that I mostly wanted her to have a good experience, it made me really proud to see how she kept it together really well on stage because it’s a lot of pressure, and we met a lot of supportive families and we learned from them,”

Olivia has some experience in competitions because her aunt, Cristina Fernandes, placed second in a state math competition in Brazil. Fernandes, who has only been living in the United States for a year, accompanied Olivia to the competition and was similarly impressed.

“I was amazed at how serious the kids of that age take it very seriously, and they see that as a real opportunity to improve their vocabulary, and that is something that is [going to] help them in future and college. I was amazed at that, and also proud of my niece,” she said.

As for whether Scripps National Spelling Bee champions go on to greater success, Spelling Bee Pronouncer Jaques Bailey and Executive Director Paige Kimball both tell the spellers that the skills they’ve learned here will make a big difference towards their future pursuits.

“I say at the very beginning of the opening ceremonies is that they’re all champions, they have those winnings and experiences throughout their life, you don’t get a Nobel Prize towards spelling, I get that, but it’s a building experience,” said Bailey.

The Scripps National Spelling Bee allows continued eligibility to any non-champions 8th grade and below, and as one of just 73 kids in the field aged 10 and younger, she stands a good chance of returning. Additionally, Olivia’s younger sister, Sophia, placed fourth at the Maury School Bee despite being only 8.

For her part, Sachariah wants to use Coleman’s victory as a springboard to foster more formalized support for Bee programs. With the addition of two new school-run bees this year, there are now six ACPS schools that are run mostly with volunteer support. Sachariah hopes to have a city-wide bee so that Alexandria can send more representatives without having to go through Fairfax.

“The Scripps Spelling Bee is low-hanging fruit because it’s across the bridge and there’s no reason there shouldn’t be more students there,” said Sachariah. “ACPS should throw more support behind spelling bee programs to promote access to this opportunity.”