James O'Shea of Drexel Hill.
School: St. Laurence School in Upper Darby, where he is a fifth grader.
Achievement: O'Shea, 11, won the Houghton Mifflin Spelling Bee for grades four, five and six cosponsored by the Houghton Mifflin Co. and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
O'Shea outlasted about 30 of the region's best spellers at the finals April 20 at Stella Maris Parish School in Philadelphia. He also is ranked as one of the top five fifth graders in the country in the "First in Math" online competition.
Question: What word did you have to spell to win the competition?
Answer: Compromise was my final word.
Q: How nervous were you?
A: I was real nervous. I was shaking up there. But I was counting down for like 10 left, nine left, 29 left.
Q: What was the hardest word you had to spell during the competition?
A: There were a lot of them. But probably discotheque. It was d-i-s-c-o-t-h-e-q-u-e. There were a lot. Mischievous was a little tricky.
Q: When one of these tough words comes up, do a lot of people go down on it?
A: They just give it to one person in the competition. Then if they get it wrong, they just correct them there. Then the next person gets a new word. So, the hard words, most people got out on.
Q: How do you practice? With flashcards?
A: Just study. I get the paper [a list of 5,000 words] and read off of it. And have [his father, Jim] ask me the words.
Q: What else do you do for fun?
A: I do like baseball. I'm a class representative. What else do I do? I play football in the fall. I do the math club after school. And I do the "First in Math" on my computer.
Q: How did you get involved with the "First in Math" competition?
A: Through school. It's a version of the 24 game. So, you have four numbers to make 24, and you can either multiply, divide, add or subtract. Sometimes they'll put, like, a twist on it and put decimals and fractions and variables.
Q: How is the math competition different from the spelling one?
A: You don't actually go face to face. So you don't feel, like, so much pressure. So it's just better.
Q: How do you handle the pressure of the spelling bee?
A: With the spelling bee, I couldn't really handle it. (He laughs.)
Q: What's your favorite subject in school, and why?
A: Probably math and science. I like math. I can figure out the problems and the equations. It just interests me a lot.
Q: Why do you think it's important for students to be involved in activities outside of school, such as baseball?
A: It gets you more well-rounded, and sometimes it can even help you. If you're really stressed out, it just gets you a break and you can have fun.
Q: How do you think spelling is going to help you in other areas of your life?
A: Whenever I need to spell a word, I can just spell it. Or some people ask me what to spell, how to spell it.
The view from the seats: "His mom [Susan] and I were sitting there, and literally, it was over three hours the kids are up on stage. And we're just as stressed as they are, if not more," Jim O'Shea said.
"You feel bad for some of the kids. Kids are coming off the stage crying, you know, disappointed. And they're heartbroken because some of these kids, they're really working hard and it's for that one day. But it's good it's over. . . . I'm just grateful that he made it down there, to be honest with you. We were just so proud of him."
The final word: "At the end, it was my son and a little girl and they went back and forth, and they kept going literally for probably 15-plus rounds," Jim O'Shea said. "And once she spelled a word wrong, the judges corrected her. And then he had to spell two more words correctly."
What a teacher says: "James is a gifted and self-motivated student," fifth-grade teacher Barbara Cianciola said. "In the beginning of the year, I felt that he had to have everything perfect. And I tried to tell him, 'You're not always going to have a 100 percent. It's fine to get a 98 or a 99. Otherwise, you're going to get an ulcer as you get older.'
"And he's come a long way since then. . . . What I really like about the way he's developed is he's an all-round boy."
- Ed Mahon