When “folksiness” tripped up William James Middle School seventh-grader Nicholas Cortes, Elikem Gato correctly spelled “beneath” and “flail” to become the Bulloch County Spelling Bee champion and continue what has become a family tradition.
By winning the competition Monday evening at Statesboro High, Gato, a sixth-grader at Southeast Bulloch Middle School, will represent Bulloch County at the Georgia Association of Educators’ Region Spelling Bee on Feb. 23 at Georgia Southern University’s Armstrong campus. As the alternate, Cortes will represent Bulloch if Gato is unable to attend.
With his win, Elikem Gato earned a trophy that will join several others in the Gato household. He earned his first spelling prize in 2017 as runner-up, representing Brooklet Elementary School then. Elikem’s older brother, Worlanyo, was a district and regional winner last year and took part in the state competition. Worlanyo also won the Bulloch bee in 2015 when he was a 10-year-old fifth-grader at Mattie Lively Elementary.
And, following in the footsteps of his older brothers, the youngest Gato, fifth-grader Woelinam, also took part in Monday’s competition, representing Brooklet Elementary School.
Fourteen students, grades fourth through eighth,
representing all Bulloch County elementary and middle schools took part in Monday’s
Nervous contestants spelled words like “dollop,” “polymer,” “fathom” and “hector” with ease, and one of the first words to trouble a student was the word “algebra.”
Toward the end of the competition, three students remained: Elikem Gato, Joshua Newman of Statesboro STEAM Academy and Cortes. With “ramada,” “bevel” and “Olympian” spelled correctly, the boys moved to the next round.
When the caller challenged Gato with the word “androcentric,” he asked for the word origin, then spelled carefully and correctly. The two remaining contestants stumbled over “graffiti” and “vivisection,” and Newman eventually misspelled “salami,” settling Gato as the champion with his correct spellings and Cortes as the second-place winner.
Gato said he often studies with his brothers, printing out spelling lists to study and drill aloud.
“We practice in the car, after school. We studied this year’s list and last year’s and extra lists,” he said. “We grew up memorizing Bible verses, so memorizing words comes a lot easier for us.”
Elikem’s parents, W. Eric and Vivian Gato, are originally from Ghana and moved to the United States in 2003, with the family landing in Statesboro in 2013 for Dr. Eric Gato’s position at Georgia Southern University as assistant professor of biochemistry.
Southeast Bulloch Middle School principal Dr. Torian White said, “The Gato boys are always leading the way with Accelerated Reading points. There’s an obvious relationship between reading and the amount of words they know. It makes sense that they’d do well because they’re such avid readers.”
Alternate Nicholas Cortes, son of Juan and Linda Cortes, said he spent much time in preparation, too.
“I Googled lists and wrote down the words over and over,” he said.
Practice, practice, practice was the key for most of the exceptional spellers. Terry Nguyen, Julia P. Bryant fifth-grader, said he studied page after page and a tutor called out words to him.
“I didn’t have any idea I’d win for my school,” Nguyen said. “I just tried my best.”
Portal Elementary School fourth-grader Jenna Mallard said she studied at home, studied in the gym at school and took part in study sessions with assistant principal Farrah Reddick.
The school spelling bee representatives included Woelinam Gato, Brooklet Elementary; Terry Nguyen, Julia P. Bryant Elementary; Ayva Gore, Langston Chapel Elementary; Victoria Mobley, Langston Chapel Middle; Andreas Dillies, Mattie Lively Elementary; Zaurail Taylor, Mill Creek Elementary; Trevor Cannon, Nevils Elementary; Jenna Mallard, Portal Elementary; Lainey Hendrix, Portal Middle; Lillie Dwyer, Sallie Zetterower Elementary; Elikem Gato, Southeast Bulloch Middle; Joshua Newman, Statesboro STEAM Academy; Jayden Miller, Stilson Elementary; and Nicholas Cortes, William James Middle.