Spelling Bee's Fifth Place Finisher Still A W-I-N-N-E-R : The Two-Way By Melissa Block

Spelling Bee's Fifth Place Finisher Still A W-I-N-N-E-R

Salamatu Adama-Aouad, aka "Coach Mom," with her 13-year-old son, Kennyi Aouad, and All Things Considered host, Melissa Block. Kennyi finished fifth in the National Spelling Bee last night. Chelsea Jones/NPR hide caption

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Chelsea Jones/NPR

By Melissa Block

The high point of my day: getting to meet a bubbly, funny 13-year-old spelling whiz named Kennyi Aouad, from Terre Haute, Indiana.

Last night, I watched Kennyi on TV as he joked and bantered his way through the final round of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. The pressure on these kids is enormous: they're in prime time, on ABC, with their parents onstage and millions watching.

But Kennyi had a joyful, loose spirit that was thrilling to watch. Dan Steinberg put it perfectly in his Washington Post blog: "If you weren't rooting for Kennyi Kwaku Aouad, your heart is filled with potting soil."

As we discuss in my interview on today's All Things Considered, Kennyi didn't win the Bee. He was knocked out by a doozy of a word -- palatschinken, which as I now know are thin egg batter pancakes stuffed with jam -- and finished fifth.

No matter. Kennyi's a charmer. He came in to our studios with his mom, Salamatu Adama-Aouad: "Coach Mom," as Kennyi calls her. And after Kennyi and I were done with the interview, his mom filled me in on Kennyi's amazing backstory.

Turns out this phenomenal speller could read fluently by age three, but he didn't speak until he was five. Ms. Adama told me Kennyi would utter sounds, but it all sounded like gibberish. He was headed for special ed classes. Then, he started with speech therapy and occupational therapy and now, thanks to years of hard work with his mom and his speech therapist, here he is in Washington, DC, one of the top young spellers in the country.

Ms. Adama thinks absolutely that Kennyi's years of work on his spelling helped him overcome his speech problems. "For him to come and be so confident -- that's a bonus of the spelling."

She said she wasn't at all nervous watching her son up there on stage, working his way through words like gyascutus, hypallage, and grisaille.

"You just have to do your best," she told me, before adding with a mother's unmistakable, unshakable pride: "He's the winner."