In 1998, Jamaican Jody-Anne Maxwell earned celebrity status in her home country as the first non-U.S. winner of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Ever since, the island nation has been enchanted by its native spellers and the competition itself. With the 20-year anniversary approaching, many are wondering if the country’s brightest young minds can break the drought and bring a championship back to the spelling-crazed nation.
“You will ask yourself, ‘Am I ready?’”
Hanif Brown stood before two seventh graders and two eighth graders in Room 5P of Ardenne Preparatory School, in Kingston, Jamaica. It was Feb. 4, a warm and sunny late Saturday morning, and in four days the students’ readiness would be revealed to their entire country. They dragged their desks up front, closer to the whiteboards that were filling with columns of words and definitions. With quiet intensity, they listened. “The way to know,” Brown says, “is to test yourself.”
He began calling out words rapidly. Onslaught. The students’ heads dropped in unison to write in their notebooks. Autonomous. On the wall a heavy fan rustily spun warm air. Children’s singing drifted in from the next classroom. Brown raised the volume of his voice, which is not given to excitement. Presumptuous.
Brown wore jeans and a loose-fitting green T-shirt with white stripes. He has an almost indiscernible peach-fuzz mustache and the easy, slightly bow-legged gait of a soccer player. He is well-known in Jamaica—the subject of dozens of newspaper articles, role model for Jamaican youths, public shoulderer of his country’s weighty hopes. One of the students in Room 5P roundtripped six hours with her parents every Saturday, from the far-west side of the island, to train with him. An almost pathological goal-setter and achiever, it’s possible that he expected to be coaching four of the 14 parish champions competing at the Jamaican national spelling bee—the only coach with more than one—but not yet. Hanif Brown is 19 years old.
Two years ago Brown’s life changed suddenly when Reverend Glen Archer, described by the executive director of the Scripps National Spelling Bee as “the greatest spelling coach of a generation,” died of complications from kidney disease. Brown, the 2011 Jamaican spelling champion, had assisted Archer, and had taken over more fully when Archer was hospitalized in late '14. As a 17-year-old with 2 1/2 years left of high school, he inherited the operation. “The way I look at it,” Brown says, “is how it is that God had prepared me for this. It was me being trained to take over, and I never even realized it.”
The way I look at it,” Brown says, “is that God had prepared me for this. It was me being trained to take over, and I never even realized it.”
He took over a dynasty. Between 1986 and 2014, Archer coached 25 Jamaican national spelling champions. Brown continued the legacy of winning when he became coach: Sara-Beth McPherson won in 2015; Chaunté Blackwood was the champion in 2016. The dominance extends beyond Jamaica’s shores. Jamaican spellers have set up perennial shop in the late rounds of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, the annual pinnacle of spelling, and claim the only Scripps trophy not won by a U.S. citizen.
Late Saturday afternoon, Brown moved the BeeSpellers—the group of students Brown coaches—outside into the Ardenne Prep courtyard beneath a tree. Archer taught at Ardenne High School, which shares a chain-link fence with Ardenne Prep, for decades. The school enrolled more than 20 of his national champion spellers—Brown would graduate from Ardenne in the spring—and provides BeeSpellers with training space. Nadine Molloy, Ardenne High School’s principal, explained that “students do choose to come to Ardenne because they believe they have a better shot at participating in the spelling bee,” but any Jamaican student willing to commit to the regimen—Tuesday afternoons and Saturdays at Ardenne, with homework assignments and check-ins via phone and text—can be a BeeSpeller. The students had been training since July. They knew how to spell most of the words in the drill that afternoon. The exercises were to build familiarity, replicating exactly what they would encounter beginning on Tuesday. If nothing surprised them they were less likely to be rattled. Brown had taught them how to spell; now he was teaching them to focus.
A hand-painted sign nailed to the tree says LIGNUM VITAE. One aspect of any high-level spelling regimen is a deep exploration of languages and roots, so Brown’s students likely knew that the Latin phrase meant “Wood of Life” or, with some latitude, one of its nicknames, “Tree of Life.” The lignum vitae blossom is Jamaica’s national flower and its wood, among the heaviest and densest in the world, has been used in the polishing of gemstones.
Jamaican spellers have set up perennial shop in the late rounds of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, the annual pinnacle of spelling, and claim the only Scripps trophy not won by a U.S. citizen.
Even to some countrymen who didn’t know him, Brown’s future had become a topic of interest. His youth cut both ways: would he sustain what Archer built, accumulating championships and representing Jamaica for decades, or did the 19-year-old beset with opportunities have different plans? After graduation every possibility was in play, including leaving Jamaica for college. In a January Jamaica Observer profile of Brown, he declined to disclose where he applied: There was a national championship to pursue, and, he hoped, another run at Scripps. He didn’t want any distractions.
At 7:00 p.m. it was dark; the Ardenne Prep security guard had to lock up. The BeeSpellers had been at it for nine hours. Brown reminded them to stick to their preparation schedule, and admonished them about letting their parents interfere. “Your parents play their role,” he told them. “I play mine.”
T here is universal appeal to big-stage spelling bees. Under the lights, on camera, children overcome their nerves, or succumb to them, and put their budding personalities on display. Through a soft lens of youthful fortes and foibles we see innocence, camaraderie, and intelligence, and we are drawn in. To this Platonic ideal of competition, which creates the perfect reality TV show, Jamaica adds a degree of celebrity.
In 1998, Scripps crowned its only non-U.S. winner: Jody-Anne Maxwell, who attended Ardenne and studied with Glen Archer. The bee’s popularity exploded on the island. Years before Usain Bolt sprinted into the Jamaican firmament, Ebony magazine wrote that the 12-year-old Maxwell, upon her return home, “received the kind of welcome reserved for soccer stars and reggae singers.” She hosted a TV show, spoke to U.S. and Canadian students, and appeared on “Figure It Out,” Nickelodeon’s iconic green-slime show.
Jamaicans, who see spelling bee success as a public manifestation of the opportunities education provides, are eager for the next homegrown speller to shock the world. “I just think Jamaicans take education very seriously,” Nadine Molloy, the Ardenne High principal, says. “They want their children to succeed. It is education that gave you the opportunity to be more than the ordinary.”
The 14 parish winners at the Jamaican national bee receive scholarships and cash prizes, and get a tour of the capital city. They meet the Prime Minister and other prominent Jamaicans. For a window into the celebrity bestowed onto young spellers, observe Chaunté Blackwood’s 2016 promotional photo for Scripps: she stands next to a track, holding a dictionary. Next to her isn’t her coach or a proud parent, but Jamaican sprinting star Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce. Popular knowledge of the spelling bee runs deep among many Jamaicans. A security guard at my hotel recounted to me the entirety of Archer’s legend, from his roots at Ardenne to his succession by Brown (whom he called a “very young coach. Really cool”).
When Jamaica’s national champion flies off to Scripps, the outsize hopes of a nation that is three-quarters the size of Connecticut, with a population slightly greater than Chicago’s, rest on the shoulders of a youth not older than 14. Leading into Scripps this year, representatives of this Caribbean island*—which has one of the world’s highest murder rates, and a per-capita GDP lower than Vermont’s—had 10 top-20 finishes in 19 appearances since 1997, all under Archer or Brown.
When Jamaica’s national champion flies off to Scripps, the outsize hopes of a nation that is three-quarters the size of Connecticut, with a population slightly greater than Chicago’s, rest on the shoulders of a youth not older than 14.
Brown became a spelling champion because of a precocious will. He grew up with his mother, Violet Solomon, in St. Thomas Parish, in Airy Castle, a rural community more than an hour’s drive from Kingston. After he won the St. Thomas Parish spelling bee in sixth grade, his father reached out to Archer, who took Hanif on as a pupil. His father drove him to Kingston for study sessions with Archer, and 12-year-old Brown finished third at nationals in 2010.
Brown’s desire to win nationals led his father to approach Archer about Hanif attending Ardenne High School, longtime locus of Archer’s coaching, where he could work more closely with the revered coach. He enrolled in seventh grade, and lived in four places around Kingston—with family, with more tenuous connections who didn’t provide him breakfast, and with Archer himself—before finding a symbiotic arrangement in 2012 with the family of a man named Roger Allen.
Brown graduated from Ardenne High School in April. In his final year of high school, in addition to his coaching duties, he was captain of Ardenne’s football (i.e. soccer) team; its “head boy,” a top student leadership position in Jamaican schools; and one of 10 Jamaicans selected by the Governor General as a youth ambassador. When asked about his extracurriculars, he replied with some amusement that it was best to email them; late that night he sent me a 14-page gridded document. Rather than staying up to finish his work, Brown frequently goes to sleep by 8:30 PM and wakes up at 1 or 2 in the morning. “When it is that it’s dark and quiet, I work a lot more,” he says. “The work I’ll get done in the morning in one hour would take me two hours in the day.”
In 2011, Brown travelled with his parents and Archer to National Harbor, outside Washington, D.C., seeking the Scripps trophy. Because a national champion cannot repeat, Jamaican spellers only get one attempt at Scripps. Provided they don’t win it all, spellers from U.S. regions can return to Scripps until they age out.
After several successful rounds, Hanif got the word “nataka,” an Indian heroic comedy with Sanskrit roots. Short words are among the most difficult to decipher because they hold fewer clues. He puzzled over it, stretching the pockets of his dark hoodie. He asked the questions that help skilled spellers decode words, buying time. The clock wound down, a bell sounded, and he started spelling: “N-A-T-A-K-A.”
Brown became the rare Scripps contestant eliminated after spelling a word correctly: The bell indicated that the clock had expired before he began. Tied for 27th place out of 275 spellers, he went to his room alone. It still bothers him that he didn’t achieve his goal. “It was the one big moment that I had,” he says. “I would have been finished with spelling bee as a student, but I felt as if I wasn’t number one, so I never felt like I was fulfilled.” Not long after, he began assisting Archer.
R oger Allen is a spelling bee dad. His son Christian was the 2013 Jamaican champion, coached by Archer with Brown’s assistance. After he and Brown took over Archer’s operation, Allen knew that rebranding was in order to avoid placing Brown under Archer’s titanic shadow. In mid-2015, BeeSpellers was born.
The relationship between Allen and Brown is more than professional. While Brown tutored Christian, the Allen family came to know him and invited him to live with them. The temporary arrangement persisted for five years, through Hanif’s graduation from Ardenne and into the summer. “What we saw was a good kid that went about his business at school,” Allen says. “We discovered that the boarding situation was less than ideal, so we could do something about it.”
Allen is a 48-year-old realtor at Century 21 Heave-Ho Properties, with a salt-and-pepper goatee cropped the same close length as his salt-and-pepper hair. He wears exquisitely unwrinkled button-down shirts with a real estate pin on each collar point, and can initiate an avuncular conversation with anyone, at any time, at any volume. He often finishes thoughts with his chin, as he did when he discussed with me the future of a BeeSpellers operation potentially bereft of Brown. “It cannot be a one-man show,” he says, driving to Ardenne. “So I’ve been putting in a program.”
Hanif Brown became the rare Scripps contestant eliminated after spelling a word correctly: The bell indicated that the clock had expired before he began. It still bothers him that he didn’t achieve his goal.
He made it clear that though he and Brown didn’t have a definite succession plan, they did have a deep bench created by Archer’s many past champions, including his own son. “We have a pool of resource persons. Think about it—not just the ones who have won, but the ones who are runners up and placed well.”
Brown missed attending Scripps with Sara-Beth McPherson in 2015—he had to stay at Ardenne for exams—but in '16 he returned to National Harbor, this time as Chaunté Blackwood’s coach. On his first night at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center, he couldn’t sleep. He kept reliving his '11 experience, the rare occasion he set his mind to something that didn’t end up happening. “I couldn’t stay in the room by myself,” he says. “It just never felt right.” Well after midnight he left his room. The hangar-sized hallways, empty and quiet, led to the auditorium where, five years earlier, he had stood onstage. The setup was déjà vu: the massive bee logo hovering over the stage like a tractor beam, the acres of chairs. He says that being in the vast space that night, alone, “was like therapy.”
Brown coached Blackwood to an 18th place finish (“photophygous”—preferring or thriving in shade—was the word that stumped her). Like Brown, back in Jamaica she quickly recommitted to spelling, and began to assist Brown. The shy 13-year-old at Scripps, less than a year later, displayed a confident, assertive calm working alongside Brown, instructing spellers despite their being her peers. She says that though she hadn’t expected to return to spelling so quickly, she couldn’t stay away. “Since I started spelling bee, I said I would come back and teach kids, because there’s so much they can learn from this.”
The proper name of the Jamaican national spelling bee is The Gleaner’s Children’s Own Spelling Bee, a befuddlement for any sloganeer better understood via its DNA: Children’s Own is a weekly paper aimed at young Jamaican students, and it is the periodical progeny of The Gleaner, Jamaica’s most popular newspaper. Through The Gleaner and its other properties, RJR Gleaner Group, a media conglomerate based in Kingston, oversees and promotes the bee similarly to The E. W. Scripps Company in the U.S. The 2017 bee, the 59th, made it older than independent Jamaica itself, which officially separated from England in 1962. It takes place in the Jamaica Pegasus Hotel, a conference and event destination, built in 1973, whose 17 floors make it Jamaica’s tallest building, and whose palm-bedecked pool has a midcentury, Hockney-esque vibe.
Beginning at 9 on the morning of the finals, the bee airs on TV Jamaica, with two pastel-clad hosts in the back, a bank of reporters, tweeters, and Instagrammers along one wall, signs for Frosted Flakes, Lasco Ice Dream, and KFC flanking a stage festooned with poster-size images of each speller, and six cameras arranged to cover the entirety of the Grand Jamaica Suite. Schools bus students in to watch the bee live. By the time the finals start after lunch, Grand Jamaica is standing-room only.
“Bob Marley is doing more now in his death than when he was alive. And I think the same of Mr. Archer,” says Barrington Wilson, a rival coach. “His school in the future is going to get better. As long as Brown continues.”
I asked some other coaches if, in Archer’s absence, they thought the field might be opening up. Errol Campbell, who genuflected when I mentioned Archer—“An icon. A legend”—says his spellers had been competitive with Archer’s and Brown’s for years, outlasting many of their charges despite not yet getting the big win. “I think that, yes, Reverend set the bar,” Campbell says, but his own spellers “were always there in that competitive mode.”
Barrington Wilson, coach of his 10-year-old daughter Drizel, wasn’t so optimistic about anyone’s chances against BeeSpellers. “Bob Marley is doing more now in his death than when he was alive. And I think the same of Mr. Archer.” Wilson says that in the future, BeeSpellers “is only going to get better,” adding pointedly, “as long as this coach continues.”
If Jamaica’s spelling audience agreed with Wilson, preemptively awarding trophies to BeeSpellers, interest would wane and the bee would suffer. Brown recognizes this. “In a way, everybody’s kind of waiting for the moment that somebody from our program doesn’t win. That may be the feel. But I can understand. People got tired of Reverend Archer.”
“In a way,” says Brown, “everybody’s kind of waiting for the moment that somebody from our program doesn’t win.”
Brown is a pacer. As the rounds progressed he frequently left his seat next to Blackwood. He crouched meditatively at the back of the Grand Jamaica Suite, chatted with a TV Jamaica host, talked with friends from Ardenne, attended to his parents, sat by himself, whispered with Allen. He exhibited a tranquil assurance. He was confident in the training—it was up to the BeeSpellers to use it to win.
The eight afternoon finalists included all four BeeSpellers: Jessica McKnight, Sowande Brown, Windel Martin, and the unofficial favorite, 2016 runner-up to Blackwood, Assana Thompson. Dr. Clive Lai, spellmaster of the finals, took a position at the podium and began pronouncing. Seven-year-old Zarah Wallace, the youngest speller and a crowd favorite, made a quick exit, announcing cheerfully into a microphone situated comically high above her head that she would return next year.
Local aficionados said nationals were typically over by 4:00 p.m., but four contestants were still alive then, including three BeeSpellers: McKnight, Martin, and Thompson. Twelve-year-old Deneiro Hines, coached by Campbell, was the fourth. The BeeSpellers’ mothers, dressed up for the occasion and too nervous to restrict themselves to chairs, occupied a spot on the floor in the back, next to the TV Jamaica camera platform. Brown had stopped pacing. He and Blackwood sat in the middle section, toward the front, each with a laptop.
McKnight went out in fourth place. After Martin prompted a TV Jamaica cameraman to exclaim “Mastermind! Jesus!” when he nailed “ultracrepidarian” (expressing opinions on matters outside the scope of one's knowledge or expertise), “homunculus” got him. Two remained.
During a brief break, Brown, Blackwood, and Allen walked with Thompson to a back corner of the room, away from the crowd. She tilted against a threshold as Brown leaned in close, offering soft encouragement. The mothers huddled together near the rear exit, calming Anne-Marie Sutherland, who appeared ready to bolt out of the Grand Jamaica Suite as her daughter prepared for another showdown.
At 4:35 p.m. Thompson and Deneiro Hines squared off. The hashtag The Gleaner created for the bee was the No. 1 trending topic in Jamaica, far ahead of Alkaline, a musician wanted for questioning by the police, creating a serendipity appropriate for the moment. Not only did Alkaline attend Ardenne High School, but one of his hits, the 2015 dancehall track “Champion Boy,” is the rarest of popular songs: one that name-drops a spelling bee winner—in this case, his fellow Ardennite, Jody-Anne Maxwell.
Less than a week before Archer died, The Gleaner published an article titled “Rev Glen Archer Anxious To Return To His Calling.” Despite being optimistic that he would soon resume coaching, Archer, interviewed at the hospital, sounds attuned to his legacy, saying of Brown, “He has stuck by me, assisted me possibly more than any champion ever. And that is significant, because you need continuity.”
The question of continuity loomed large at the 2017 bee. What if Brown stopped coaching? Had Archer’s success spawned enough coaches—both those who studied with him and those, like Campbell, who challenged him—to carry Jamaica’s bright spelling torch?
Interviewed at the hospital before he died, Reverend Brown says of Hanif Brown: “He has stuck by me, assisted me possibly more than any champion ever. And that is significant, because you need continuity.”
Did BeeSpellers’ future depend on Blackwood, who turned 14 years old in March? The program Allen wants to create would reduce reliance on a single person, but spelling programs take time to build. The confident young Blackwood claimed that she was ready. “I think I can manage,” she says matter-of-factly, noting that spelling had taught her to multitask. She addressed her youth with friendly competitiveness: “Hanif,” whom she described as being like her brother, “is the youngest ever coach of national spelling bee. And if I take over, I’ll be youngest.”
Asked if it worried her that her young daughter might inherit the BeeSpellers coaching mantle, Trecia Blackwood sighed, with pride and perhaps some concern. “Her dad and I, we support her in making certain decisions. We really don’t force her to do anything at all. So if it is that she can do this and she manages well with her schoolwork, then we will support her.” She seemed both amused and overwhelmed. “It’s a bit frightening, I must say, but we’re here to give whatever guidance we can.”
“It takes a lot”, says Brown. “It has taken a lot out of me...This is the situation: What’s best for spelling bee is that Chaunté is there continuing things, but what’s best for Chaunté isn’t necessarily that.”
The most headstrong opposition to any discussion of Blackwood taking over came from Brown. When Jamaican media asked about his college plans, he always tried to keep her name out of it. “It takes a lot,” he says of the responsibility he took on at age 17. “It has taken a lot out of me.” He was hesitant to put any obligation on Blackwood, and, like a concerned big brother, says that it would be unfair to do so. “This is the situation: What’s best for spelling bee is that Chaunté is there continuing things, but what’s best for Chaunté isn’t necessarily that.”
On the Grand Jamaica Suite stage the two preteens went back and forth, applauding each other with the politesse that endears Jamaican spellers to Scripps audiences. Hines missed “ischiorrhogic” (“I-S-C-H-Y-O-R-O-G-I-C”). Unfazed, he stood behind Thompson, his fate on the line. One correct word and she would be champion.
“Thixotropy,” says Clive Lai. Thompson spells deliberately. She closes her eyes, bows her head, and taps the cadence with her foot as she says the letters to herself before vocalizing them. But this word rattled her, and her routine vanished. Hands clasped as if in prayer, she kept pronouncing the word and asking Lai to repeat it. She asked the origin: Greek. This might have helped with the “x,” but Thompson ran her hands nervously over her face. The bell rang. “Start spelling,” Lai says.
Through shallow breaths, she spelled. “T-H-I-C-H-S-O-T-R-O-P-Y.”
“Brougham” didn’t trouble Hines. Thompson, still ruffled, left the “r” out of “charmeuse.” Hines spelled it correctly and clinched the championship with “epanalepsis.” As Campbell stormed the stage with Hines’s other supporters, Thompson stumbled off in tearful disappointment. Blackwood comforted her; Brown approached the judges to file an appeal; and Allen strode to the stage and congratulated the winners.
That night the Gleaner Company hosted a dinner at Talk of the Town, a banquet space atop the Pegasus tower. The details for the young spellers were touching—a photo booth with cartoonish hats and sunglasses and mustaches; a karaoke machine; a separate food line with burgers and fries. Each banquet honors the prior year’s champion, so Chaunté Blackwood was there, accompanied by her mother. Chaunté had grown up so much since winning. A server filled the wine glass in front of the 13-year-old with rosé, but she stuck to juice with her burger and fries.
At a subdued BeeSpellers table, disbelief persisted that Assana Thompson hadn’t won. Finally, Trecia Blackwood proclaimed, “So I guess I’m coming out and committing that Chaunté will work with Assana.”
When Brown was 7 years old, in Airy Castle, he told his mother that he wanted to switch churches. His interest had shifted from the local church to the Seventh-Day Adventists’, which he couldn’t walk to. Violet Solomon asked her only child how he would get there. Hanif came up with a plan to coordinate transportation with some neighbors. “He dressed himself for church,” she says, “and he was never late.” Brown made a decision that complicated his life, and he navigated it easily. Five years later he couch-surfed around Kingston to become a spelling champion, and five years after that, while still a high school student, he carried on the legacy of a generation’s greatest spelling coach and became a living affront to the one-page curriculum vitae.
It’s understandable that Brown would be curious about opportunities beyond Jamaica’s shores. “Deep down, I want a new experience. I have to live my own life. I understand that people look at it as I have a responsibility to my nation, to coach children and so forth,” he says. “But understand: I’m 19 years old and I want to live my own life. If you’re any logical, thinking person, then you’ll understand that.”
In April, Brown accepted a scholarship to St. Thomas University, in New Brunswick, Canada. When he debarked from the Ontario-to-Frederickton flight, on August 30, it was the third time he left Jamaica, and the first time for a destination other than Scripps. I asked him how exciting this was. “The only thing that excites me is football,” he says, “but you know when you feel at peace about something.” For now, a goal to work at the United Nations has replaced his dedicated efforts to bring Jamaica another Scripps trophy.
“I understand that people look at it as I have a responsibility to my nation, to coach children and so forth,” says Brown. “But understand: I’m 19 years old and I want to live my own life. If you’re any logical, thinking person, then you’ll understand that.”
July marks the beginning of spelling bee preparations in Jamaica. This summer, some new coaches quietly emerged. Gifton Wright, a Scripps fourth-place finisher trained by both Campbell and Archer, took on two St. Jago students. At BeeSpellers, seventeen young Jamaicans signed on. Seated before the whiteboards in a hot Ardenne Prep classroom, they saw a program taking root. More hands were pitching in. Allen’s involvement increased, and former champions McPherson and Christian Allen assisted whenever they could.
As he prepared to leave for college, Brown stepped back from his head coaching duties, and focused on helping to groom his successor. She is 14 years old, and she is ready.