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LOCAL STUDENT BECOMES CHAMPION SPELLER by Ellen Donker

Lucas Jackowski knows how to nictitate

Lucas Jackowski’s brain contains words that most adults have never heard of. He can spell them, too. Never mind that he doubts he’ll use many of them in normal conversation. Gaining this verbal knowledge has been worthwhile, enabling this fourth grader to realize success leading up to the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

According to his parents, Dana Kaban and Walter Jackowski, Lucas was an early reader and spelling just came naturally. So when he saw a flyer about participating in Jefferson School’s spelling bee for grades 3 through 5 this past winter, he jumped at the chance.

This will be the first time Jefferson School has participated in the Scripps National Spelling Bee. But this iconic scholastic competition has a long history, having begun in 1925 when nine newspapers joined together to host a spelling bee as part of their literacy efforts. Today, 95 years later, it reaches 11 million students each year.

Lucas was already familiar with spelling bees as he had watched some on YouTube. To qualify for Jefferson’s, he took two spelling tests, placing first in his class. This win allowed him to compete against the other top spellers in the school on February 5. But now he had to study a list of words provided by Scripps – 450 in all.

His diligence paid off and Lucas won handily, correctly spelling “presidential.” His schoolmates in Ms. Bialer and Mrs. McMahon’s class celebrated by giving him a group hug.

Lucas proudly holds his trophy after winning first place in the Essex County Spelling Bee.

This win meant that Lucas and another Jefferson student, along with two winners from each of the district’s elementary schools, could compete on March 7 at the Essex County Spelling Bee Championship sponsored by the Sidelines and Stages Foundation in Newark.

And that’s when things got serious: Lucas now had just one month to memorize the Words of the Champions list containing more than 4,000 words comprised of three levels. Dana says, “The challenge of the level-3 words was that we didn’t know how to pronounce many of them…so I spent many hours looking up the words to write them down phonetically to aid in his studying.” Others helped, too, including Jefferson’s reading specialist, Mrs. Tsioni, who pulled Lucas aside for practice during breaks. And students routinely quizzed him at lunch.

On the morning of March 7, Lucas says, “I woke up at 6:30 that morning to study the word list and was excited for the bee.” By 11 a.m. he was at Kipp Life Academy in Newark, competing with 18 other children from elementary and middle schools across the county. Besides Lucas’ parents, Jefferson Principal Kim Hutchinson and Assistant Principal Angel Rivera were in attendance to cheer him on.

Round after round, Lucas hung in there, successfully spelling the words mandate, leniency, tomfoolery, urbanely, transference, and lanolated. When it was time to tackle his final word, he nailed it, emerging as the Essex County Spelling Bee Champion. The deciding word? Nictitate. (It means to close and open quickly, or blink.)

Jefferson Assistant Principal Angel Rivera and Principal Kim Hutchinson came out to cheer student Lucas Jackowski at the Essex County Spelling Bee.

This victory meant that Lucas would represent the Essex County Community at the ESPN televised Scripps National Spelling Bee in National Harbor, Maryland. It had been scheduled to take place May 24 through 29, 2020 (they call it Bee Week), with all expenses paid. Unfortunately, the national finals were canceled because of COVID-19, the first time since World War II that the bee did not take place.

Says Lucas, “I'm really disappointed because I feel like I worked so hard....but I will be ready for next year!” In fact, if he used one of his vocabulary words to reflect on our current situation, he might say he is hoping for the appearance of a thaumaturge to eradicate the virus. For us non-competitors, that means a worker of miracles.

Ellen Donker has always had a knack for spelling and enjoyed hearing about Lucas’ achievements with the bee.