Once a language learner, Filipino-American student heads to national spelling bee

March 10, 2017 GMT

Brent Earl Ebarle was nine years old when his family moved from the Philippines to South Carolina so his dad could work for Boeing. He was the only kid at Newington Elementary who spoke Tagalog, and he needed a little help catching up on his English skills.

He took English for Speakers of Other Languages. He studied hard, with help from his mom.

Three years later, he’s a spelling bee champion.

Brent, now a seventh-grader at Cane Bay Middle School in Berkeley County, took home first prize Thursday night at the Post and Courier SpellBound regional spelling bee. He’ll head to the Scripps National Spelling Bee in May.

It was a meteoric rise for a student who used to be so nervous about the language that he rarely spoke a word of English. In the fifth grade, he made it through the school and district spelling bees before faltering in the first round of SpellBound. The next year, he made it to the sixth round at SpellBound. Now he’s number one.


As usual, the parents betrayed far more emotion than the students at this year’s spelling bee. While Brent and 49 other Lowcountry spellers kept mostly stoic expressions at the microphone, parents peered anxiously between spread fingers or bit their lips as they stared through smartphone screens, recording the moment of truth round after round.

Brent’s mother Dhenia and older sister Patricia were so nervous, they waited out in the lobby. His father Gil texted them after every round.

It all came down to Brent and Auggie Mastrion, a Moultrie Middle sixth-grader whose mother Michelle Jones seemed just as surprised as Brent’s parents that he had made it so far. Auggie, who read the Lord of the Rings series in fourth grade and has recently gotten into medieval history books, stood a head shorter than most of the competitors and nodded his head forcibly with each letter. He tripped up on “lassi,” an Indian yogurt-based drink.

Brent seized the opportunity and made an educated guess, correctly spelling the word after hearing it had Sanskrit roots. According to final-round rules, he needed to spell one more word to clinch the victory. The word was “dariole,” a French pastry mold.

How did he know that?

“I just guessed that one,” Brent said.

Onstage in the Goose Creek High auditorium after it was all over, Patricia hugged her brother from behind as he accepted the trophy. Gil gave a smile and then a dazed look, at times ducking out of the way so his son could take the spotlight.

“I was very surprised,” Gil said. “I wasn’t expecting this.”