The 2019 Great American Spelling Bee, held April 19 at Austin Branch Library, 5615 W. Race, only featured three contestants. Ironically, the paucity of spellers just proved ESPN columnist Darren Rovell’s point. 

“I don’t care what critics say,” Rovell once wrote. “Spelling is a sport. You compete. You sweat. And it takes guts to do it.”

Friday’s pared down competition included 9-year-old Janiyah Johnson, a third-grader who was uncontested, but not unchallenged. She was alone in the hot seat for 20 straight words among a list of more than 150. She spelled them all correctly. 

The tension really set in when fourth-graders Jimerreiah Nash, 10, and Sema’j B. Myles, 10, went head-to-head. The audience of roughly a dozen people applauded every word that each contestant spelled correctly. Silence set in when one of them stumbled. 

A moment of collective anxiety seized the room when the spelling bee’s facilitator had a mental lapse and gave the spelling of the winning word away, prompting a back-and-forth between the facilitator and the audience about fairness. 

Finally, after roughly 20 minutes and dozens of words, Myles tripped on the word “variable,” leaving an opening for Nash to take the win, which she did. 

The event, however, turned out to be a win-win for all involved. Afterwards, each child earned a prize and a higher satisfaction — the inherent worth of hard-work and preparation. 

“I practiced all week, every day, and my grandma made sure I practiced,” said Nash after her win. 

“I broke my words down,” said Myles, referencing his preparation for Friday’s bee, which he was nervous going into. After it was over, the feeling of relief. 

One of the facilitators of the spelling bee, which was sponsored by the American Women of Oak Park, said that this is the first spelling bee “we’ve had in all these years that we haven’t had about 40 or 50” contestants.

And yet the drama was still there.