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The Student Newspaper of Jackson-Reed High School

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The Student Newspaper of Jackson-Reed High School

The Beacon

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Spelling history on and off the court: Zaila Avant-garde

Eli Schwartz
AMAZING AVANT-GARDE – Junior Zaila Avant-garde transferred to JR at the end of semester one. In 2021, she won the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

Internationally acclaimed junior Zaila Avant-garde transferred to Jackson-Reed at the end of the first semester. Pushing the limits in both notoriety and achievement, Avant-garde is the author of three books, a two-time Guinness world record holder, and the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee champion. 

Avant-garde grew up in Louisiana and moved to DC in 2022 to be closer to family, as well as further her basketball career. Avant-garde’s dad, a former Jackson-Reed (then Wilson) student,  was the person who pushed her to pursue the Spelling Bee after seeing an advertised competition. He has served as a mentor for her spelling career. 

“I’ve read over 1,000 books, so it kind of was a natural progression for me because I’ve always loved words,” Avant-garde noted. For most spellers, training for the Bee can take around 10 years, but for Avant-garde it only took her two. Studying for 7 hours a day and reviewing over 13,000 words, she dedicated extensive time and determination to her passion for spelling. “I was a bit of a word nerd.” 

Spelling her way to the national stage did not come without its challenges. “For the majority of my childhood, I was living off of EBT [Electronic Benefits Transfer].” One time, Avant-garde had to win a spelling bee to receive the $10,000 prize that would allow her to keep spelling. 

Spelling bees have long been discriminatory due to wealth disparities, as kids from wealthy backgrounds can afford tutoring, giving them an extreme advantage. Avant-garde broke barriers when she became the first Black American to win the National Spelling Bee, with her “desire to achieve” motivating her. “I worked really hard toward that goal and to actually do it was super exciting,” said Avant-garde, when reflecting on her iconic twirl on stage after spelling the winning word “Murraya.”

After overcoming obstacles in the Bee, Avant-garde went on to write her first book which quickly became a New York Times bestseller, It’s Not Bragging If It’s True. Here she delves into personal stories and anecdotes that guided her along the way, in hopes of advising others in an approachable manner. “You can hear the same advice from a million different books, but the idea is that [it’s from] someone who is more relatable,” she said.

In her book, Avant-garde writes about her experience being homeschooled. A contributing factor in her move to DC was that high schools weren’t letting her play basketball in Louisiana and she wanted better opportunities. “Nobody likes homeschooled people apparently,” she joked. Although being the 2021 SportsKid of the Year and holding two Guinness world records for dribbling and bouncing, Avant-garde’s passion for the sport has lessened since her move to DC. When she transferred from Holton-Arms to JR at the end of the first semester, her paperwork for the basketball team was turned in late, making her ineligible for the winter season. 

When she was younger, Avant-garde had dreams of playing in the WNBA, but since then her aspirations have shifted. After accomplishing unbelievable amounts before turning 17 and having multiple full academic scholarships for college, she has decided it is time to “relax.” 

However, she still has powerful future goals. “I either want to work in neuroscience or forensics and I want to work at NASA.” 

Avant-garde has been inspired by many motivational people and has even had the opportunity to meet some, including Malala Yousafzai. “When I was little, I read her book, I am Malala, and was super inspired by that. She’s one of my favorite people. It was an out-of-body [experience].” Another idol she has met is Sha’Carri Richardson, whom Avant-garde had the pleasure of meeting at the ESPYs. 

Even though Avant-garde has accomplished so much and met so many exceptional people in such a short time, she is still a teenager. During her time in DC, she has appreciated the cherry blossoms and “also Ledo’s pizza which I really like.” Similar to other juniors, Avant-garde is currently working hard to find summer internships. On the weekends and in her time off she likes to hang out with family, read, go on runs, and walk to farmers markets.

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About the Contributors
Edith Corrigan Conaty
Edith Corrigan Conaty, Spread Editor
Eli Schwartz, Assistant Director of Art and Design
  • 2022-23: Senior Photo Editor
  • 2023-24: Assistant Director of Art and Design
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