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June 9, 2000

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A boy of letters

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Shanthi Shankarkumar

Years of intensive study of words paid off last week when George Thampy, 12, of Missouri, won the National Spelling Bee title.

It was an eventful for Thampy: He won second place in the Geography Bee and then topped it with the National Spelling Bee title. This was his third shot at the title -- he was in third place in 1999 and tied for fourth place in 1999.

This time he outlasted 247 other spellers over two gruelling days to proudly claim the winner's trophy. It has been a long, word-lined road to the top for a boy who had decided when he was just three years old that he would like to participate in spelling bees. As a six-year-old, he was a finalist at the regional level, competing with kids double his age.

Almost a week after winning the title, the unassuming, shy lad is still in a daze.

"For the first couple of days, I couldn't believe it. When people would come up and congratulate me, I would say, 'What did I do?' "

The nation obviously thinks he has achieved something very special. He was flown to New York for appearances on the Good Morning America and Today shows immediately after winning the title. Back in Washington, at a banquet for the participants there was a long line of people waiting to get his autograph. The line was so long that it had to be discontinued since it was nearing midnight.

Thampy received $ 15,000 for coming second in the Geography Bee. He missed the first place by half a point. He lost to a public school student after he managed to name only one of the three largest provinces of Denmark. The winner named all three.

"I will give the money to my parents. They worked very hard and I love them very much," said Thampy, a seventh grader from the St Louis suburb of Maryland Heights.

Was he a nervous wreck being in the spotlight for two days? Thampy claims he wasn't fazed.

"My Dad was more nervous than me. My Mom's facial muscles had frozen but my Dad was reacting to everything," he says.

George Thampy got all the 15 words he had to spell over two days. The words he had to spell were "fondue," "waiver", "serendipity", "ersatz", "surfactant", "vesicant", "emmetropia", "annelid", "trophobiosis", "psilosis", "quodlibet", "eudaemonic", "diktokous", "propaedeutic" and finally the word which clinched him the title, "demarche". The biggest scare came in Round 7 when he guessed "emmetropia", a term from ophthalmology which means 20/20 vision. He wasn't sure if it had 2 'm's or whether it had an 'a' or an 'e'.

A very religious boy, Thampy avers that it was god who helped him with that word.

"I prayed to Jesus that He would give me words that I knew. He gave me that one word I didn't know because I think He felt that I'd become proud and feel that I did it all on my own if I got only words I knew. So He helped me get that word," says Thampy.

It took years of relentless, focused preparation before Thampy grabbed the title. He spent 3-4 hours a day studying his words. The official dictionary used in the 73rd Annual Bee had 400,000 but Thampy had prepared his own word list that had almost 30,000 words. His father too helped by preparing a comprehensive list, which included medical terms. What helped even more was that he got three words from that list! "It is strange. You have to study thousands and thousands of words and you get to spell only 15," muses Thampy now.

Of course, the fact that he is home-schooled by his mother, Bina also helped." I think that home-schooling was an advantage. My mom allowed me to do what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it so that I can maximize my study potential. She was flexible about my study schedule," said Thampy.

Incidentally, youngsters schooled at home swept all the top three spots at the National Spelling Bee.

George Thampy might have a winning way with words but his ultimate calling is medicine. The fun-loving boy who loves boating, fishing and kite flying has set his mind on becoming a doctor and not a writer, despite his unquestionable flair for words.

The bespectacled soft-spoken boy is the third of seven (4 boys and 3 girls) children ranging in age from 14 to 4. All of them have been home-schooled. All the children do very well academically and at least three of them have been successful at the Geography and Spelling Bees at various levels. Their father, K George Thampy, a biochemist and physician, decided to home-school his children after he saw metal detectors being installed in schools across America.

"We feel that character development is very important and that is not possible in a public school environment with its violence, drugs and alcohol problems," said the father. The Thampys, natives of Kerala, came to the US in 1977.

Mother Bina who admits feeling "bogged down by work" all the time calls her full-time teaching of her children as an "unpaid job". She also modestly insists that her role in George's success was minuscule.

"He is very self-motivated and learns on his own. He has an aptitude for this kind of thing. This is something he wanted to do since the time he was three," says Bina.

To future spellers, Bina warns that there is more to the Bee than just memorizing strings of letters. For a word to stick in one's mind, one must understand the origin and structure of the word. She also cautions parents against pressuring children into entering Spelling and Geography Bees.

"You have to be mentally tough to handle the pressure of performing before TV cameras and large audiences. It can be emotionally exhausting and tiring. Too often, children who have been pushed by their parents cannot stand the rigors of the competition and fall apart. I'd never push my children into entering these Bees if they didn't want to. Each child has a special gift and aptitude. It is up to the parent to channelize that gift," said Bina.

Indian American wins spelling bee again

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