Spelling champion has Bayside abuzz

Photo courtesy Scripps National Spelling Bee
By Phil Corso

Oakland Gardens’ Nathaniel Hawthorne Middle School has been buzzing with excitement on the news that one of its own was crowned a national spelling bee champion.

Bayside Hills 13-year-old Arvind Mahankali clinched the title last Thursday night, putting the perfect end to his middle school spelling career. The MS 74 eighth-grader placed third the last two years and ninth in 2010 before bringing home the $30,000 grand prize.

Principal Anthony Armstrong was in the crowd watching as Mahankali held out his hand and pretended to spell on it with the other, one letter at a time. At times, the principal said even he was too nervous to sit.

“There was such excitement and tension each time he came up during the finals with words that even I was unfamiliar with,” Armstrong said. “My personal anxiety took over and I just tried to breathe naturally.”

The Bayside Hills eighth-grader’s victory sent him to City Hall Tuesday, posing for photos like a celebrity alongside Mayor Michael Bloomberg, his principal and family. He will also be making an appearance on ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” this week.

“It is incredible how much support, love and appreciation I have received from New Yorkers over these last few years,” Mahankali said. “I am happy that I can make New York proud in my own little way.”

And to bring his victory full-circle, the spelling specialist had to overcome a word of German origin yet again, to beat out 280 other spellers from across the country. Last year, Mahankali fell victim to the word, “schwannoma,” a German word for a tumor of the peripheral nerve.

But this time around, Mahankali successfully spelled the German-derived Yiddish word “knaidel,” a kind of dumpling typically eaten in Jewish homes during Passover. When he was finished, masses of confetti shot into the air and he was handed the championship trophy, which he raised high.

It was Mahankali’s last chance at the title, since the bee only includes students between Grades 3 and 8. He is now bound for Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan.

Armstrong said he was inspired to see the young students encouraging each other throughout the event despite the fierce competition. From the crowd, he said the 13-year-old could be seen giving advice to the second- and third-place winners because he, too, had been in their shoes before.

“His maturity was something humbling to experience,” Armstrong said.

That same team-oriented mentality followed the eighth-grader back to his middle school this week, the school’s principal said.

“He’s helped to make spelling fashionable again in our school,” Armstrong said. “Now I have children talking and thinking about spelling. It’s a great topic because it is linked to culture and lends itself to other topics.”

Since his victory, Mahankali has been recognized by various elected officials and school administrators throughout the city, who commended him on his perseverance and success.

“When I met Arvind and his family last spring, I was struck by his determination to come in first place this year,” said city Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott. “His dream has been realized, and clearly the third time is the charm — I was thrilled to see him take home the glory in his final year of eligibility.”

Reach reporter Phil Corso by e-mail at pcorso@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4573.

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