Photo by Jay Paul
From left to right: Brothers Shreyas and Tejas Muthusamy, their father, Muthusamy Jeevanantham, and mother, Srilatha Santhanagopalan, in the family’s Henrico County home.
1/21 UPDATE: Tejas Muthusamy won the Henrico County Public Schools spelling bee for the thrid year straight on Jan. 19. Congratulations! Our feature on Muthusamy from April 2015 is below.
Last year, at the age of 11, Tejas Muthusamy was the youngest finalist in the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
In late May, the Moody Middle School sixth-grader, who is now 12, will be in the National Spelling Bee again, trying to improve on his eighth-place finish.
Some of his stiffest competition this year came from someone close to home — actually, in the home.
That would be his younger brother, Shreyas Muthusamy, 9, a fourth-grade student at Shady Grove Elementary School who finished second to Tejas in the Henrico County Public Schools spelling bee. The competition pits spelling champions from each of the county’s elementary and middle schools against each other.
So, how is it that two brothers from the same family could finish first and second in a highly competitive spelling contest, in a county known for its overall excellence in academics and its high achievers?
First, you would have to start with the fact that for the boys’ mother, Srilatha Santhanagopalan and her husband, and for Tejas and Shreyas, learning to be an exceptional speller is only part of the story. And, in their minds, it is not the most important part.
“Spelling has been a great tool for us to teach them a lot about life,” Santhanagopalan says.
Her husband, Muthusamy Jeevanantham, leans forward, nodding approval, as the couple sit with their boys at home in a Henrico suburb.
“The spelling,” says Jeevanantham, “will probably be over by the time these guys are 13. But the experience they’re going to get out of the competition, practicing for spelling, the time they are spending, those kinds of things will stay with them longer. And I think that is the best thing they can get out of the experience.”
Tejas, letting his parents’ comments sink in, has his own take on things.
“Winning a bee isn’t going to change your life,” he says solemnly, “but if you focus more on learning, then that will.”
Photo by Jay Paul
Tejas proudly displays his spelling trophies in his bedroom.
Tejas became aware of words early on, his mother says, beginning at about 2 1/2. Soon, he was reading cereal boxes and billboards. That got her attention. “I’m thinking, maybe this boy likes to spell,” she recalls.
She began working with Tejas. They would talk about words, spell words and write down hard-to-spell words for later review. By the time Tejas was in third grade, Santhanagopalan urged him to enter his school’s spelling bee.
“I liked it because, obviously, I won,” Tejas says.
But discouragement soon set in when Tejas lost the county spelling bee representing his school. He didn’t want to talk about it either at school or at home. His mother urged him to look forward and to aim high.
“My mom said maybe I could win the regional bee someday, and maybe the nationals,” Tejas says.
He has a poster in his room that helps summarize that optimism. It reads, “To get something you never had, do something you never did.”
Tejas poured himself into spelling preparation, even more focused than before. He had learned to deal with a setback and move on.
“It was a huge lesson in how to bounce back,” his mother says.
Tejas’ parents, originally from southern India, moved to Henrico in 2001. Santhanagopalan trained as an electrical engineer, though she says she always had a strong interest in languages and literature, and his father studied math and earned an MBA.
They both work for local companies; he for Capital One and she for Magellan Health Services.
Santhanagopalan says some people have, in good humor, teased that the reason Tejas and his brother have become such good spellers is because they have had a lot of practice spelling their own family’s names.
“When we go to the doctor’s office, they ask if we’re all the same family,” Santhanagopalan says with a laugh, noting that she and her husband have different last names, and the boy’s last names are different from both of their last names.
Here’s the explanation: The last name of Santhanagopalan’s husband, Jeevanantham, is his father’s first name. Her last name, Santhanagopalan, is her father’s first name. By tradition, she would have taken her husband’s first name as her last name when she married. Instead, she decided to keep her maiden name.
Her boys’ last name, Muthusamy, is her husband’s first name. When Tejas first entered the school system, Santhanagopalan says all the names put many people into a tailspin, even though Tejas patiently spelled each one. “We never thought he would get out of kindergarten,” she says with a laugh.
But back to spelling.
When Tejas and his brother Shreyas study words, they don’t just learn to spell them. With their mother’s help, they examine the roots of the words, their countries of origin — this is the point they start talking about geography — and how the words evolved through the ages.
“That way it’s more interesting, and they don’t frustrated with all the practice,” Santhanagopalan says.
Tejas, who has thought a lot about words a lot and the time he devotes to them, explains it this way. It’s a long explanation, but Tejas tends to talk in coherent, encyclopedic paragraphs, not sound bites.
“Learning languages is more gratifying to me than just learning words, and it’s fun to see how languages have evolved, because it gives a clue as to how people have evolved … and how they traveled from place to place, because language travels with people when they move on,” Tejas says.
“We didn’t just flop out of the sky and come here in this form. Obviously, depending on the belief, we evolved to some extent.
“It’s kind of interesting to know how we evolved … and it’s curious how some people come up with disorders and some people come up perfectly fine … language has a role in it, and genetics.”
Santhanagopalan says Tejas has a natural inclination to use big words and big ideas in talking and writing, and his spelling practice — which sometimes can run for hours at a time — continually enriches his vocabulary and his thoughts.
Tejas, who also swims, sings in the school chorus and practices Indian classical dancing, has a wide, expanding range of interests.
He and his brother, for example, both earned black belts in karate, and Tejas’ progression through the martial art is carefully arranged in various colored belts on the wall of his room, right next to the ribbons and medals he has won for spelling.
Tejas doesn’t regard himself asspecial. He says each person has different talents, and one of his talents is spelling words, understanding words and loving words for their contributions to culture and civilization.
Santhanagopalan says the teachers and students in the schools her sons attend have been tremendously supportive of their efforts in spelling.
When he was preparing for the national spelling bee last year, Santhanagopalan says everyone offered him best wishes. When he made the finals, Santhanagopalan says his principal drove up to the Washington area to see and support him, and to let him know that everyone in his school was thinking of him.
When the pressure starts building before a big spelling bee, Tejas says he will often take a walk around the neighborhood to calm himself. Sometimes, he’ll also cook Indian food, but he admits that he doesn’t cook nearly as well as his mother or father. When he’s not sure how the meal is going to taste, Tejas persuades his brother to try the food first. “He’s my guinea pig,” Tejas says.
When the brothers are given a hard word to spell, they have different techniques for thinking about it before they open their mouths.
The family frequently uses a dry-erase whiteboard to write down words as part of their spelling practice. And Tejas will conjure up an image of that board in his mind as he thinks about how to spell a difficult word.
“I see the marker writing on the board,” Tejas explains. “I write the letters down to see if the word looks right. If it does, I spell it,” he says.
For younger brother Shreyas, the technique is different.
“What I usually do,” Shreyas says, “is stare at the ground or the wall. In my brain, I imagine a jumble of letters. And when I spell the word, the letters go in the correct place.”
Besides spelling, Tejas also is doing well in other subjects. In math, for example, he’s taking a course that is two grades ahead.
In time, Tejas hopes to delve much further into words and languages.
He already knows his parents’ native Tamil language, and he wants to be able to speak French and German — and he wants to study Greek and Latin, geography and philosophy, and more math.
At school, though, Tejas says he doesn’t talk about any of that with other students.
“Usually,” he says, “they just ask me to spell something.”