Meet the 6-year-old genius who will steal the show at this year’s national spelling bee
- Chris Weller
- Mar. 30, 2016, 10:50 AM
Akash Vukoti is dancing on the couch and blowing spit bubbles when I first connect with him on Skype.
The San Angelo, Texas-native may be 6 years old, but a few weeks ago Akash became the second-youngest child and the first-ever first-grader to qualify for the Scripps National Spelling Bee later this May.
If that wasn’t enough, Akash began reading before his second birthday, qualified for the high-IQ society Mensa when he was 3, became a Davidson Young Scholar at 5, and already speaks three languages.
So forgive me if I forgot during a recent call with Akash and his father Krishna that even a prodigal 6-year-old still likes to dance and blow bubbles.
“When I was little, I used to play with magnetic alphabet toys,” Akash tells me, enunciating each word with astounding clarity.
That was the first thing that struck me: how articulate he was. In between fits of throwing himself into the sofa and covering the lens of his iPad (much to his father’s resistance), he delivered strings of complex sentences with minimal effort. He was also immensely polite, repeatedly calling me “Mr. Weller” even after I told him “Chris” was just fine.
“I put them on the refrigerator, and my parents recognized this,” Akash says. “So they took me to a spelling bee competition, and on and on and on.”
His first bee was the MastiSpell competition, a spelling bee just for kids in 4th grade or below. Akash entered when he was 2. Four years later, his proficiency with language has started winning him national acclaim.
On the premiere episode of “Steve Harvey’s Little Big Shots” in March, Akash and Harveymatched spelling wits on-stage. Akash successfully spelled derriere and connoisseur after Harvey butchered both. He was giggling all the way.
That led up to the grand finale, when Akash reeled off with great confidence the correct spelling of pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis, a type of lung disease.
“The greatest of all-time!” Harvey shouted, holding Akash aloft. “He just spelled mononucleosis in a volcano!”
According to Krishna, his son’s talents have come naturally since birth. When I ask about their specific origin, Krishna’s answer comes directly and without hesitation: “God.”
That talent is only magnified through hard work.
Each day, regardless of whether Akash is training for the Scripps bee or any of the other spelling bees around the country, he spends at least an hour going over his words. Often, that hour turns into five, Krishna says. In the hierarchy of Akash’s interests, spelling is right at the top. Everything else comes later.
“I like geography, science, math. I like doing music and dance,” he says, mentally scrolling through the list. “I like playing in the park with my friends. I like swimming in the park…I mean, swimming in the pool!”
Akash is home-schooled — a recommendation given to his parents by a child psychologist shortly after the MastiSpell competition. Traditional kindergarten would have only left him bored, they learned, so now his mother, Chandrakala, works full-time as his teacher. Many of Akash’s friends come from the network of other homeschooled kids in the area.
On their face, these factors may seem like liabilities for Akash’s success at the Bee later this May.
Historically, the Scripps winners have been 12-14 years old who are highly socialized to the competitive atmosphere and have had exposure to many years’ worth of words. Akash is 6, home-schooled, and lacks up to eight years of studying compared to the rest of the field.
But when I ask him if he’s nervous at all for the big event, his denial is unequivocal. I almost felt silly for asking.
“Just like in ‘Little Big Shots,’ I’m not nervous when going on stage,” he says, repeating it again, this time louder and more emphatic than the first. “I’m not nervous at all!”
I’m hesitant to believe the normal biological response of anxiety doesn’t affect even the brightest of young minds, but Krishna quickly backs him up. Fearlessness may just be another of Akash’s gifts.
“Both he and his big sister, they never had stage fright. They don’t know what that is,” Krishna says. “And I’d like to keep it like that.”