For Southeast Bulloch Middle School eighth-grader Worlanyo Gato, 13, who won the district spelling bee in Brunswick Feb. 24 and now advances to the GAE State Spelling Bee on March 16, spelling skill is intertwined with faith and family.
“It feels pretty good. Nothing really changes,” Worlanyo said when asked how it feels to be district winner. “We still have to study a lot. Our routines are the same. It gives me a chance to share Jesus with a lot more people.”
After winning the Bulloch County Spelling Bee on Feb. 5, he traveled to Jane Macon Middle School in Brunswick for the Georgia Association of Educators’ District 8 Spelling Bee, one week ago Saturday. His family went along to cheer for him. When it came down to Worlanyo and one other competitor, a previous champion, they went several rounds before Worlanyo misspelled “stressor,” confusing it with a word of German origin, his father said later.
But then the other finalist missed a word as well, reportedly “heath,” perhaps hearing it wrong.
Then Worlanyo carefully and successfully spelled two more words – the last was “H-U-R-R-I-E-D-L-Y” – for the win.
“And so he went from just totally dejected the minute before to just, all of sudden, winning it. He was really, really thrilled. I mean, we all screamed,” said his father, Worlanyo Eric Gato, Ph.D.
Dr. Gato, who goes by “Eric” while his oldest son goes by their shared first name, is assistant professor of biochemistry at Georgia Southern University. Really, they are Sr. and Jr.
By the way, young Worlanyo said the hardest word he had to spell in competition was probably “expeditionaries.”
“Not because it was hard but because it was long,” he said. “Most of the words weren’t hard. They were just confusing.”
The reporter’s questions were relayed to Worlanyo by his father, who replied with the answers.
This is the first time Worlanyo Gato has won at district, but he was also Bulloch County Spelling Bee champion in 2015, when he was in fifth grade. His brother Elikem Gato, 11, now in fifth-grade at Brooklet Elementary School, was runner-up in the 2017 Bulloch County Spelling Bee, as a fourth-grader. Woelinam Gato, 9, now in fourth grade, also practices spelling with his older brothers and has competed in Brooklet Elementary’s bee.
Education and faith
Their parents provide living examples of a high value placed on education and of an emphasis on their Christian faith and teachings.
Dr. Gato conducts research, based at Georgia Southern, into how contact with environmental chemicals may increase susceptibility to diseases. The origins of Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes are a particular area of interest in this work.
He and his wife, Vivian Gato, originally from Ghana, immigrated to the United States about 15 years ago as he pursued his doctorate at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. All three of their children were born in America.
In Ghana, Mrs. Gato had completed post-high-school teacher training and taught elementary school and the equivalent of U.S. middle grades. Here, she is studying at Ogeechee Technical College to become a licensed practical nurse. They have lived here in Bulloch County almost five years.
The way that the Gato boys practice spelling and vocabulary when riding with their dad in the car sounds typical of what might happen in many families with busy schedules and a similar emphasis on learning.
“My kids are kind of hyper sometimes, and this seems to keep them engaged,” Dr. Gato said. “For us, spelling bee has sort of been the thing that allows us to do better when we’re driving to school or driving to the library or driving to soccer or driving to church. We just spend those few minutes playing word games or sometimes we take a word and try to see how many words we can make from that, and other times just spell any words that come along.”
Words and the Word
But young Worlanyo’s mention of sharing Jesus points to a more spiritual side of the family’s shared practice. The Gatos also memorize passages from the Bible, and their spelling and word games grew out of that, as part of a fun approach, Dr. Gato said.
“I became a Christian when I was 15, and I’ve seen how that has saved me from all kinds of – not that I still don’t get in trouble – but it really saved me from a lot of trouble as a young man growing in Ghana,” he said.
The family attends Connection Church, where he and his wife serve on the prayer team and he and his sons sometimes work with Konnection Kids, the children’s ministry.
With activities such as memorizing Bible verses, the Gatos try to train their children in their faith “and let them know the importance of knowing Jesus and trying to live for him as best as God can help us,” Dr. Gato said.
They also try to read the Bible through in a year.
Meanwhile they practice spelling and learn the meanings of words in the belief that a good vocabulary can help these young men go far. This kind of practice also serves as an exercise of “the will to remember things that are important,” their father said..
Sometimes in the car, younger brothers Elikem and Woelinam coach Worlanyo by suggesting words for him to spell. At home their mother helps as well, seeking out different ways words may be pronounced, because spellers often hear words differently in competition than in practice.
The Gatos make use of resources such as the Scripps National Spelling Bee’s Word Club and Word of the Day.
The next level
Even if it doesn’t feel all that different, Worlanyo Gato has now advanced to a rare level for his school, the Bulloch County Schools and all of the spellers in Bulloch County. The GAE State Spelling Bee will be held at the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site in Plains. With a win there he would advance to the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., in June.
At this point he is trying a different form of practice, on the theory that simply memorizing words can only take him so far.
“I am now not memorizing words,” Worlanyo said. “I am learning how to build them. I study roots and affixes to learn how to do it. I am looking for a lot of tips online.”
But one part of the strategy hasn’t changed. His whole family plans to go to Plains to cheer him on.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.