Even when LeVar Burton helps crown a new spelling bee champ, Zaila Avant-garde will forever hold the title with us. Last year, the young whiz out of Louisiana became the first Black American winner of the Scripps National Spelling Bee in its 96-year-history. Over 20 years before, in 1998, Jamaican Jody-Anne Maxwell became the very first Black winner. Avant-garde didn’t set out to make history, per se; instead, she found spelling came easy and everything else followed.
“I loved reading a lot. And so, for me, it was kind of like a natural thing when the spelling bee came up,” she tells EBONY. “I was like ‘Hey, this is something I can do, where I can channel my love of words into something that is a competition, which was combining two things that I really liked—competition and reading.’ So that's kind of how I got started.
“And then from there, I went to my regional, which was my first spelling bee ever and I actually won the spelling bee, which was super cool, and I got my first ever trophy,” she continues. “And then I went to Scripps my first year, which didn't end very well, but it was my first time; I only had two months to study.”
Preparation to win Scripps after coming so close in 2019 didn’t quite fit the journey painted by the popular 2006 fictional film Akeelah and the Bee starring Keke Palmer, she shares. “It wasn't like that. I really didn't go to the dictionary or anything like that. I had a program called SpellPundit. It had all the words that have been used in spelling bees or they think are likely to be used in spelling bees. Basically, all the top spellers in any given year are SpellPundit users. And I would use that program to learn like 13,000 words a day,” explains Avant-garde.
Winning Scripps is not Avant-garde’s only big accomplishment. She actually holds three solo Guinness World Records in basketball. One is a solo record for most bounce juggles in one minute with four basketballs and the other is as coholder for the most basketballs dribbled at once by one person with six. This is a goal she set for herself when she received the Guinness World Records book as a gift
“I don’t remember any specific record in the book that motivated me, but I know, when I got that book for my eighth birthday, from that moment on, I wanted to be in the Guinness World Records book,” she says. By her thirteenth birthday, she vowed to make it happen and shares that “it was a very cool moment when I was told that I had gotten the record.” On top of this, she is a master juggler—she can even juggle while riding a unicycle. In 2020, Avant-garde won the silver medal for juniors at the International Jugglers’ Association Championship.
So, it’s little wonder that BYJU’s, the Indian-based, multinational educational company supporting online learning solutions for Pre-K – 12 with operations in over 21 countries, wanted to partner with Avant-garde. Already familiar with BYJU’s as a student, Avant-garde, who plays piano, used the platform’s one-on-one learning format to sharpen her skills. She also learned how to code a game from a private instructor. Avant-garde is set to host her own “How to Build Curiosity with Zaila Avant-garde” workshop on July 9 where she will share her strategy for success during BYJU'S first-ever virtual Summer Camp, featuring live classes and 10-weeks of workshops from leading experts in various areas, including STEM, the arts and gaming.
Because Avant-garde herself enjoys continuous learning and, according to BYJU’S co-founder Divya Gokulnath, “is a shining example of how a child’s natural curiosities translate into life achievements, the edtech leader did not hesitate to name Avant-garde the company’s very first global youth ambassador. It’s a partnership Avant-garde affirms very much aligns with her own values.
“I’m a big lover of education,” she explains. “Having the ability to do something where I can encourage education is super cool to me.” To promote the partnership, BYJU’s shot a digital ad with Avant-garde in Louisiana, her home state. With the tag “Get Better Every Day,” the ad shows off Avant-garde’s various talentswhile also sharing that she has made mistakes to perfect them before recommending BYJU’s to others.
Avant-garde, who is also a math genius and an avid lover of literature and history, is a self-proclaimed old soul whose favorite books include The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. She also does her best not to listen to music past the 1980s, her favorite era. In fact, when she traveled to Los Angeles for the EBONY Power 100 Gala back in October, where she was among the NextGen honorees, the highlight for her was meeting two producers most teenagers have probably never even heard of.
“Anything I can do to help promote African Americans and just all minorities in general, I'm always super happy to do. But the coolest thing that happened to me there is I got to meet two of my musical idols, which is Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis,” she shares. “Of all the people I have met, I have not been worried or starstruck by anybody except them.”
Of course, Avant-garde, who is both a standout scholar and top basketball prospect, has big dreams for the future. “I want to go to Harvard and play college basketball there. And then I want to go play in the WNBA and then be an NBA head coach possibly, and then work for NASA,” she says. “It's a long plan but it will work out.”
Given her track record, how could it not.