“Your word: privet,” said pronouncer Paul Hopkins at the New Mexico State Spelling Bee on Saturday.

“Huh?” asked 11-year-old speller Eren Zeynalov, in response.

Eren, a fifth grader at Manzano Day School, was one of the state’s 25 best spellers competing in the state bee hosted at the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque.

He went on to spell “privet” correctly, and ultimately advanced to the finals.

Keith Lee, a sixth grader at Albuquerque Academy with ambitions to play shortstop for his favorite baseball team, the Houston Astros, spelled the winning word: millet, a type of seeded grass. Keith will now travel to the Washington, D.C., area in May to represent New Mexico in the national bee.

“I’m excited because I get a free trip to D.C.,” his sister Sheryl Lee joked.

The competition was fierce, with spellers tackling words from boulevardier to blatherskite. By the noon lunch break, just six of the original 25 spellers advanced to the finals. An hour later, just first- and second-place winners, Keith and Navya Ramasamy, remained, battling it out for 29 rounds before Navya misspelled “balefire” and Keith clinched it with “millet.”

Chief judge Kim Vesely said the bees don’t normally last 38 rounds.

Keith said although he was excited by the win, he also felt overwhelmed by the intensity of the competition. In 2020, he won his school bee and in 2021, he was the runner-up in the Sandoval County district bee.

“I felt really nervous,” Keith said. “Everyone here was really good. I can see why they are here.”

Keith’s parents said after he won his district bee, he studied between two and three hours every night. Keith’s father, Po-Hsuen Lee, was particularly proud because his son’s first language was Mandarin. Po-Hsuen Lee and his wife, Yi-Hsuan Chang, are immigrants from Taiwan. Until about third grade, Keith primarily spoke Mandarin and had to take English-language-learner courses. Just a few years later, Keith is a champion of spelling English-, French-, Greek-, Latin- and Arabic-derived words.

Runner-up Navya Ramasamy, a fifth grader and first-time bee competitor from Dennis Chavez Elementary, said she didn’t think she’d make it this far in the competition.

“I’m really surprised because I didn’t even expect myself to win my class bee,” Navya said.

But Navya was dedicated, her parents Raju and Naveena Ram said, studying about an hour every night. But getting on stage was sometimes nerve-wracking for the young speller.

“It’s kind of scary because your heart feels like it’s beating more,” she said. “(But) I just kind of tell myself that I made it this far, and not many people make it this far.”

Second-place finisher and first-time bee competitor Navya Ramasamy said, “I’m really surprised because I didn’t even expect myself to win my class bee.” (Chancey Bush/Albuquerque Journal)

It was the first time since 2020 that the bee had been held in person. Some 244 schools, between 23 counties, enrolled. Each of the state competitors, whose ages ranged from 10 to 14, won their classroom bee and their district bee, then took an additional test to qualify for the state competition.

“I wanted to make it festive, you know, take really good care of everybody,” said event planner Pamela Chavez, who organized this year’s bee. “It’s just been so amazing getting to know the teachers. … It’s just one more thing that teachers do that they’re not getting paid extra for – they do it so their kids get experiences.”

Manzano Day School librarian Rachel Patton came to cheer on her student Eren Zeynalov. She was proud to see Eren on stage – she noted how he high-fived a fellow competitor when she spelled a word right.

“The spellers, they’re very collegial, they’re really supportive of each other,” Patton said. “…They have courage and grace that’s under fire up there.”

Like Navya, Sophie Otero was a first-time spelling bee competitor. Her journey from Sandoval Academy of Bilingual Education to the state bee was sometimes difficult, Sophie said. She forgot to study for her classroom bee, and was surprised to make it through to the district competition. Making it to the state bee was “surreal.”

Sophie was eventually eliminated on the word “charismatic.” But she’s not done spelling just yet.

“I’m gonna try again next year,” Sophie said. “I’ll be back.

The Journal is a sponsor of the New Mexico State Spelling Bee. Other sponsors include Nusenda Credit Union and Dion’s.