MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury Union Middle School eighth-grader Ronan Howlett has an expansive vocabulary for a 14-year-old, but two words in particular will always resonate with him even if he rarely gets an opportunity to use them in a sentence: “Qualitative” and “desultory.”
Those are the two words that have won him consecutive titles as Vermont’s top student speller.
The Cornwall resident repeated as top performer in the Vermont State Individual Spelling Bee last Wednesday, March 13, topping 42 other prodigious spellers from across the state — including St. Mary’s School student Colin Dowd.
Howlett, a shy and polite young chap who recently spent three years with his family living in New Zealand, won this year’s competition by spelling “desultory,” an adjective that means “marked by absence of a plan; disconnected; jumping from one thing to another; digressing from the main subject; random.”
“I’m happy,” Howlett said matter-of-factly about his repeat feat. “I’m kind of relieved that I did it and didn’t mess it up.”
Howlett is the son of Brian and Sigrid Howlett, who operate a dairy farm.
He credited his love of reading — and above all, remembering the words he has read — for building his spelling skills. He is a particular devotee of fantasy, science fiction and non-fiction books.
“I have a good memory,” he said. “When I read a word and see it, I remember what it’s like.”
It also doesn’t hurt that he’s a good student. Howlett has consistently been on the high honors list at MUMS. He enjoys playing soccer and is involved in track and field events.
As the winner of the 2013 Spelling Bee, Howlett won an iPad, a trophy and an all-expense paid trip to Washington, D.C., where he will represent Vermont in the Scripps National Spelling Bee in June. The trip is sponsored by FairPoint Communications, Vermont Lake Monsters, the Burlington Free Press, Vermont Humanities Council, Vermont Principals’ Association and Vermont Agency of Education.
It will be an opportunity for redemption for Howlett, who was disappointed to have been knocked out in the preliminary rounds of last year’s national competition, where he spelled his words correctly in the spoken component of the competition but had a few misspellings on the written component.
Emily Ballou, of South Royalton School, was runner-up to Howlett in the state competition. Nicholas Knudsen of Frederick H. Tuttle Middle School came in third.
Elementary and middle school students (through grade 8) under the age of 16 were eligible to participate in this competition. Students from across Vermont who participated in the bee already competed in their regional bees this winter.
Bob Johnson of the Vermont Principals’ Association introduced the event, which was held in the McCarthy Arts Center at Saint Michael’s College in Colchester.
“I felt a fair amount of pressure,” Howlett conceded, with a smile. And now that pressure will build as June, and the national bee, approach.
MUMS Principal Patrick Reen heaped praise on the star speller.
“We are all incredibly proud of Ronan’s accomplishments at the state spelling bee,” Reen said. “He fended off some tough competition last year and was able to repeat as state champ this year. He is a great student, citizen and person. He represented himself, MUMS and the community well and we know he’ll continue to do so at the national spelling bee.
“Way to go, Ronan.”
(Editor's note: We received word on Monday morning that Howlett posted back-to-back victories in state competitions last week when he placed first out of 80 competitors in the Vermont MathCounts championship on Saturday. He will be one of four Vermont students representing the state in the National MathCounts Competition in Washington, D.C., in early May. Wow!)