For a brief moment Friday, everything was back to normal at Fugman Elementary School in northeast Fresno. After nearly a week and many miles away, Ananya Vinay was back for the last day of class.
And then the chants started.
“Ananya! Ananya! Ananya!” came the chorus as the Clovis Unified school’s own Scripps National Spelling Bee champion came in sight.
Kindergarten students formed a tunnel for her, each waving a paper bee as the champ raced toward another sea of cheering students inside the multi-purpose room.
“It was really cool to walk through everyone and walk in the middle while everyone was shouting my name,” Ananya said. “It was a cool experience.”
Ananya had one request immediately after becoming the nation’s best speller. She wanted to be home on the last day of school.
“We just wanted to make sure we took care of the one request by her,” said Vinay Sreekumar, Ananya’s father.
And so they did. Just like Ananya was happy to be back at school, her classmates were glad to finally see her again in real life and not on TV.
“This is normal, having Ananya here,” said Ananya’s sixth-grade teacher Jason Anaforian. “She’s being herself.”
We are all on team Ananya.
Jason Anaforian, National Spelling Bee champion Ananya Vinay’s sixth-grade teacher
Ananya’s life has been turned upside-down since she she won June 1 in suburban Washington, D.C., earning a big trophy and $40,000. The 12-year-old stayed on the East Coast, making public appearances that included national morning TV shows and the New York Stock Exchange (where she rang the opening bell Thursday). She said her favorite stop was also Thursday in New York: One World Observatory.
Oh, and Acting California Gov. Gavin Newson signed a proclamation naming June 8 as Ananya Vinay Day in the state. “That’s something I’ve never thought, we never dreamt about,” said Vinay Sreekumar, Ananya’s father. He said the family has been told they will get to meet Gov. Jerry Brown on June 26. They also plan to meet Fresno Mayor Lee Brand on June 15.
Ananya is not done with TV audiences just yet. Following Friday’s celebrations at her school, the family traveled to Los Angeles for her appearance on “Jimmy Kimmel Live.”
Ananya’s return home the night before was just as lively. Dozens of family friends, teachers, dignitaries and more welcomed Ananya at the Fresno Yosemite International Airport on Thursday. Two large banners, reading “Congratulations Ananya Vinay” and “Ananya is our spelling queen bee!” hailed the champion.
Another large banner hung Friday at Fugman: “Ananya Vinay, we couldn’t ‘bee’ more proud.”
It was really cool to walk through everyone and walk in the middle while everyone was shouting my name.
National Spelling Bee champion Ananya Vinay
“That mental toughness that she had was just incredible and way beyond her years,” Fugman Principal Jennifer Thomas said. “People see the intelligence side … but this other side is she’s this true leader and has a heart of gold.”
Before the school’s end-of-year talent show, a clip of the moment when Ananya won was shown to the room. After correctly spelling “marocain,” once again it was all claps and cheers – this time from her friends and classmates.
Ananya said it has also been a good feeling for her to know that so many people have been behind her as she competed in spelling bees.
Of her winning moment, Ananya said, “I knew I was going to win, I just wanted to take my time and make sure I was right.”
She received a Block F, a Clovis Unified award that honors students who embody the “mind, body and spirit” of the district, Ananya’s teacher said. She was also handed a reading, fitness and perfect-attendance award, all of which she had missed receiving during the school’s award ceremony last week.
A short soundbite was played of Paul Loeffler, ESPN’s TV voice for the spelling bee who took Ananya’s win personal – not only is Loeffler the radio voice of the Fresno State Bulldogs, but he’s also a former National Spelling Bee competitor. He congratulated Ananya on her win and on being from the central San Joaquin Valley. Ananya is just the fifth California winner and the first from the Valley.
The talent show kicked off with Ananya reading a poem, “Human Family” by Maya Angelou.
That mental toughness that she had was just incredible and way beyond her years.
Fugman Principal Jennifer Thomas
“We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike,” Ananya repeated twice. She said she read it because it tells people to put aside their differences.
“It was an interesting poem, and I like the message it gave,” Ananya said. “It shows people are more alike than different.”
The night before, Sudarshan Kapoor, a professor at Fresno State, presented Ananya with an Indian/American flag pin. He said it represents unity and community pride in Ananya, who has Indian heritage.
Kapoor said, “She is now a bridge between this culture and the Indian culture.”
Ananya’s father agreed. He said although Ananya was born in Chicago and is “100 percent American,” she carries many values from her parents’ Indian heritage. Those values, he said, are what makes Ananya who she is.
“She brings the good things of both countries,” Sreekumar said. He added that the family plans to visit India possibly in about a year. Many family members there have kept up with Ananya during her victory tour, Sreekumar said.
Ananya will attend seventh grade at Granite Ridge Intermediate School next year, her mom said. But her legacy at Fugman is likely cemented. Anaforian offered that Ananya has made the school proud, and hopes more success will follow hers.
“She gave us something to rally around, something that brings us all together,” Anaforian said. “We are all on team Ananya.”