Behind the Bee
By Chris McKendry
Page 2 columnist

I spend most of my days writing for a TV news audience. It's been said that TV news is written on a third-grade level.

Pratyush Buddiga
Pratyush Buddiga plans on adding to his trophy case.
I spent two days last week serving as host of the National Spelling Bee, a change of pace on so many levels. For starters, grade levels. The students were no older than eighth-graders and yet no more advanced than, say ... your average Ph D candidate. Suffice to say, I spent a lot of time smiling and nodding my way through conversations.

I can't explain their brilliance. No different than athletic phenoms, these kids were born with incredible talent and worked hard to develop their skills. And no different than athletic phenoms, the varying influences on the elite competitors in this event is something you must see to believe.

Reading through their bios, I found no fewer than two dozen seventh and eighth graders who have been "recognized" for their high SAT scores and have "participated" in university talent searches.

Abhijith Eswarappa, who has finished in the Top 10 the past two years, has been named a Bevan Merit Scholar by the Duke University Talent Search Program. Excuse me? Duke's "searching" for talented eighth graders? What if Jith was a basketball player and Coach K was openly courting him? It seems that sports' scholastic counterparts have a seedier side as well. Jith will also represent his state of Tennessee in the national Mathcounts competition this summer.

Jith isn't unusual in jumping from competition to competition. Some of these students live on the competition circuit. This year's champion, Pratyush Buddiga, has set his sights on winning the National Geography Bee. His mother also has set her sights on him winning. Did I mention, Pratyush's goal for the future? He plans to make Mars livable for humans.

I know what you're thinking. At first blush, I thought the same thing. Who are these kids? Forget Mars. Where did they come from?

But wait. I haven't even told you about the two most determined competitors -- two young ladies who were born not only with unimaginable intelligence, but with unthinkable handicaps. And while many of the competitors left me in awe, these two inspired me.

Kaley Ann Graves
Kaley Ann Graves
Kaley Ann Graves, a 14-year-old eighth grader from tiny Monticello, Ill., kept something a secret from all the other spellers.

She is deaf.

Her near-shoulder-length curly brown hair hid her hearing aids, without which she cannot hear speech. Kaley doesn't use sign language, just her aides, though she can read lips. Dr. Alex Cameron, the Spelling Bee's pronouncer, wore a microphone on his lapel that sent signals to Kaley's aides. Since her teachers use the same system, she was confident it would work. Kaley's also confident in her photographic memory; she believes it's a result of her hearing loss, her brain compensating for what she can't hear.

Turns out that she was right to be confident -- out of 250 spellers, Kaley finished in a tie for 15th place.

We found out about Kaley's hearing impairment the night before our telecast. Her parents asked that we not say anything until we were on the air, since the spellers could not hear or see our broadcast.

When I asked Kaley why she did not want the others to know she was hearing-impaired, she shrugged in typical teenage fashion, then said, "I just like to be normal. Same as everyone else."

Kaley's parents, Dale Ann and Kevin Graves, were devastated when they learned their 15-month-old baby girl was not like everyone else. Dale Ann said, "I had never been around a hearing-impaired person in my life. I did not know what to do, what to think." Her fears concerning her daughter's future subsided when a teenage boy who also went to Kaley's doctor showed up at their house. He too was hearing-impaired yet academically successful, social and confident. Dale Ann said it was then she told herself, "It's going to be OK."

His visit inspired the Graves family to allow me to share Kaley's secret. Dale Ann decided that maybe a young parent somewhere is wondering what's to come of their hearing-imparied toddler. Maybe seeing and hearing Kaley in the finals of the National Spelling Bee would calm their fears. In addition to being a spelling wiz, Kaley plays basketball and volleyball and adores N'Sync; I think that might calm any worried parents' fears even more.

April Reynolds
April Reynolds
April Reynolds, who finished tied for seventh, is another N'Sync fan; she is especially fond of Justin Timberlake. A two-time National Spelling Bee finalist, 14-year-old April's enthusiasm and spunk on stage was what first caught my attention. With an ever-so-slight South Carolina twang, April addressed the pronouncer, Dr. Cameron, with loud "Sirs and Thank Yous." She did not walk back to her seat -- rather she bounced. "I'm enjoying every minute because you never know," she told me.

She ought to know.

Born with hydrocephalus, better known as water on the brain, April has had 14 brain surgeries, the first when she was just 2 days old. As her mom, Karen Reynolds, who is a nurse practitioner, explained, "April has a plumbing system in her head now." It's been working well, though future operations can't be ruled out.

Karen has learned to expect the unexpected from her daughter. April was just 18 months old when Karen and her mother heard April reading the newspaper. She was reading an article on Russia and Moscow out loud. April did not know what she was saying; to her it was just words. "April, honey," is all Karen could say. Imagine the shock of learning that your child -- who by then had had several brain surgeries -- was brilliant, to boot.

Since that day, April's also mastered French. She finished sixth out of 6,500 competitors in a national French competition. She finished first in the state of South Carolina. Her Spanish is OK, but she likes French better because "it's more beautiful."

Just like Kaley's mom, April's mom said she, too, told herself, "It's going to be OK," over and over during the hardest times, such as Christmas holidays and summer breaks spent in hospitals. April injected, "You also said, don't give up hope. It could be worse."

Because of the encouragement her mom provided, April gives her "100 percent" of the credit for her success.

Hearing that, Karen said, "Remember, honey, when I told you that I would stand in front of a train for you?"

And April said, "Remember what I asked?"

With April's laugh getting louder, Karen said, "Yeah, April wanted to know if it would be moving."

Obviously, April's wit is as quick as her mind. She has such poise and personality for a 14-year-old that I felt compelled to ask her where she gets it.

"Inside of me", she said. "I tell myself to stay calm. You know, just don't freak out."

Yeah, don't "freak out" ... spoken like a true eighth-grader.

I smiled and nodded. That was one thing I could definitely understand.

SportsCenter anchor Chris McKendry is a regular columnist for Page 2.



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