Evan O’Dorney, a home-schooled California boy, won the National Spelling Bee with “serrefine.” Evan is a music-math prodigy who’s not that excited about spelling. Too much memorization.

Evan studies spelling for about an hour a day, the San Franciso Chronicle reports.

His mom, Jennifer O’Dorney, quizzes him daily on words out of Merriam-Webster’s dictionary as he juggles as many as four balls while walking around his home.

He said he sees mathematical patterns while he’s juggling and spelling words aloud.

In the final rounds, he spelled “rascacio” (scorpion fish), “schuhplattler” (a Bavarian courtship dance), “laquear” (recessed panels in a vaulted ceiling), “pappardelle” (pasta), “yosenabe” (a Japanese soup) before winning on “serrefine,” (small forceps for clamping a blood vessel).

Go to Throwing Things for a run-down on the final rounds and a plea for less cutesiness in the TV coverage.

About Joanne


  1. Unfortunately, Evan is a poster child for what critics say about home schooling.

  2. Really great, Congrats Evan!!!I even struggled to spell some of the words I frequently use in a day-to-day life,and switch on the spell checker whenever I type the letter..But this little boy makes me amaze..More compliments to his mother as well…
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  3. Ken S

    Can you explain your comment, “Evan is a poster child for what critics say about home schooling.” ?

  4. Can you explain your comment, “Evan is a poster child for what critics say about home schooling.” ?

    I’d bet it’s that if he knows this stuff, he can’t possibly know who was on American Idol, or who the local pro team should have traded or important stuff like that. An unsocialized dweeb.

  5. It’s been a while and maybe it’s gotten better (I sure hope so) but he had extremely poor social skills for his age. And no, I don’t mean pop stuff, Triticale, I mean social interaction in a group of kids and adults. I fear he won’t be able to interact well with them in the future, which will limit his potential because there’s more to life than just academics. I don’t want to be unfair so that’s all I’ll say, but I do worry about the boy.

  6. Cardinal Fang says:

    I wouldn’t be so quick to attribute his social deficits to homeschooling. This is a kid who is a math prodigy, who has already finished high school, who at 14 is studying tensor analysis and number theory, who started spelling by himself before he was two. That kind of kid fits public school like a bra on the Grand Canyon. He sounds like he might be on the autism spectrum.

  7. I am all for knowing how to spell but I am afraid the bee is descending (or ascending) into parody with all those recherché words.

  8. “rascacio” (scorpion fish), “schuhplattler” (a Bavarian courtship dance), “laquear” (recessed panels in a vaulted ceiling), “pappardelle” (pasta), “yosenabe” (a Japanese soup), “serrefine,” (small forceps for clamping a blood vessel),

    Most English-speakers will never use one of those words in a sentence. Those that do use them are specialists of some sort who would only use one of them. It is ridiculous, and I’m not surprised if the kid that memorized them all is a high-functioning autistic – but the problem is, at the national championship level, no one’s likely to miss any of the words that are in common use in the English language, and you can’t pick a winner until you find words that the runners-up don’t know.

  9. Cardinal Fang, I don’t attribute them to homeschooling itself, only to a lack of teaching him those skills. That may be associated with homeschooling, but hasn’t been that I’ve seen.

  10. Cardinal Fang says:

    The point is that, if he is autistic, teaching him those skills is difficult. My best friend’s son is autistic. He goes to public school. He’s about the same age as Evan. He has a lot of therapy, but his social abilities are nevertheless seriously lacking.

    As to the spelling bee words, I’ve used the words “pappardelle” (butterfly shaped pasta) and “yosenabe” (a Japanese soup). Neither is extremely obscure, at least among foodies. But regardless of the obscurity of the words, learning to spell obscure words is no more useless than learning to hit a ball with a stick, yet kids spend hours playing baseball.

  11. Cdl. Fang,

    Thank you. Our oldest is almost certainly on the autism spectrum (though one of the advantages of hsing her has been avoiding having a diagnosis on her record), and we kept her home both because of her academic precocity and because of her bizarre, off-putting behavior. Throwing her into a classroom to sink or swim when most kids disliked her for her bizarre “unsocialized” behavior within 5 minutes of meeting her would not have “cured” her social problems.

    Today, at 11 years old, she is studying post-calculus topics with her tutor (a math grad student with, interestingly, Asperger’s Syndrome, whom she really clicks with), and is much less evidently “unsocialized.” But still there are plenty of people like the first commenter who put the cart before the horse and blame homeschooling for her weirdness. No, she’s almost certainly *more* socialized for having had parents work closely with her and help her to function.

    P.S. She also loves memorizing spelling words–she’s obsessed with patterns, always has been, and will happily regale you with spelling pattern trivia (like, the difference between -able and -ible endings depends on whether the root verb came from a first declension Latin verb or not).

  12. Kate Tsubata says:

    As a homeschooling mother and columnist, I am truly surprised by the destructive assumptions expressed here. We are each uniquely gifted, and we are each uniquely incompetent. Labeling someone “autistic” or “dweeb” or “socially inept” is a sort of social darwinism, reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut’s dystopic vision of a society so afraid of strengths that it would create a system of handicaps for each person to force them to a dull sameness of accomplishments.

    To me, each child is a marvelous package of talents and gifts: one is a math genius, another, a dance genius, another, a strategist par excellence. Celebrating each person’s uniqueness and honoring all as deserving of decency, courtesy, respect–these are the values that mature human beings live by.

    Evan O’Dorney’s unapologetic preference for math over spelling, and unwillingness to perform for the camera, and his desire to have his original musical composition aired, to me show a very normal, and very confident, young man who knows what he likes, is irritated by the assumption he must pretend something, and prefers sharing his original artistic works with people, in which he has real pride. Autism is usually characterized by a lack of awareness of others, not by a wish to reach others with one’s original compositions.

    And if someone is autistic–what? We don’t let them compete in an area where they can excel? Do we say that the kid with the amazing height can’t play basketball for having an advantage that came from his DNA?

    This tendency to measure people against a norm–which frankly does not exist, but is more a vague average that people come to as a result of looking at a general population and drawing some conclusion–is not constructive. So what if a kid reads above or below “grade level?” Who made the grades? Who determines the levels?

    If someone learns calculus at 12, but can’t dance, is he a dork? a dweeb? a moron? a freak? On the other end of the spectrum, if an innercity kid can dance brilliantly at age 8, but can’t read, is he retarded?

    The truth is, we tend to consider our own strengths as the “norm.” The unspoken position most of us operate by is “If I can learn at this level in this subject, that is the “natural” and those who surpass me earlier are geniuses or idiot savants, and those who lag behind me are deficient in basic abilities.”

    How much more exciting is it to throw out that assumption, and to substitute one in which we assume, “each person is uniquely gifted, equipped and has amazing abilities and potentials, and we can each shine in our own arena, while truly enjoying the superiority of others in their respective arenas.” I can’t dribble a basketball or slamdunk a basket…but I can enjoy what Michael Jordan does. And he can enjoy what Evan O’Dorney does, or what you do!

    Homeschooling just allows each kid to grow naturally with a strong and supportive family network, according to his or her own potential. Studies have shown homeschoolers to be better able to relate to others than those educated in institutional schooling, so it doesn’t make sense to hold onto the “isolated, socially inept” stereotype.

    I hope this will encourage a general appreciation and honor for all young learners, no matter where and how they are educated.

    Kate Tsubata

  13. Ken S

    You owe a huge apology to the people reading this blog who are the parents of autistic children, and to the autistic children as well. You also owe an apology to all homeschooling parents and their children.

    I’d rather have an autistic child who conveys minimal social skills than have a son who makes a quick, uneducated opinion about an individual.

    Who really lacks social skills? I’d place my money on you.

  14. Godspeed, Evan and family.

  15. RadarRange says:

    No, no one owes anyone an apology. It’s called freedom of speech. And if you can’t tell that kid is a little tweaked you are a fool. I think the people leaving comments are more curious what his affliction is than just bashing. I’m curious as well. I worked with a guy who had the same vocal inflection, almost the same voice actually. To this day I swear he had some variant of autism and I believe the same for this kid. I don’t think home schooling had anything to do with his behavior. I know many kids that were home schooled and they come off as brighter and more well adjusted than most public schooled kids.

  16. He's Not A Dweeb says:

    Why is everybody hating on this kid who obviously beat some non-autistic or unsocial kids in a spelling bee which most of you guys wouldn’t even be able to handle. I think the kid has alot of potential, when I was a kid all I did was play games and did all my homework, and all that got me was a high school diploma and a bachelors degree. But this kid already finished high school at the age of 14, c’mon, lets pop a bottle of champagne and cut a piece of cake for the kid and celebrate his come up. I think his parents did a great job on parenting this young boy, we need more parents like that, instead you have alot of these parents that don’t even take good care of their kids and when something bad happens they blame it on Movies and Music…and thats only because they didn’t do what EVANS Parents did, so Big Ups to his parents and EVAN KEEP DOING YOUR THIZZLE YOUNG MAN…..AND OH YEA….

  17. Jackie Chan says:
  18. YouGiveItATry says:

    As the parent of the someone on the spectrum and who recognizes one like her very own, I congratulate this mom on doing a great job with her son. I am a strong proponent of the public schools, but I guarantee this young man’s behaviors are not a result of the sheltering of home schooling. The hand flapping, the obsessive focus on the correct pronounciation and word origin, and the inablility to decipher what the news woman was conveying in terms of her discomfort with the situation are very much on-spectrum attributes. It amazes me that there is no more awareness out there about high-functioning autism. As a parent of a social outgoing daughter whom every child wants to play with, AND of a son who has very few friends and can be viewed as strange by parents and peers, I can attest to the fact that it has nothing to do with the parenting. Good job, Evan.

  19. Mary F. says:

    I am a speech and language pathologist and after I saw this interview, I thought to myself, “this child is autistic.” Glad to know my diagnostic skills are still A-OK!

  20. Kate Tsubata –

    If Evan turns out less “unsocialized” as people put it, then great. It’s true many people posting here are not posting out of genuine concern for Evan but it reflects a genuine problem for him. As a member of society, it is generally preferable to have a good mix of both intellect as well as social tact. The authentic concern here is that Evan will not be able to function as well as his peers in terms of social interaction and that in turn limits his potential.

    Do not think that placing Evan in a “sink or swim” situation (putting him in a public school) is all bad. To truly expose Evan to all that the world has to offer, social interaction should be as important if not more important than book smarts. That is the primary argument against homeschooling. It’s not about attacking the homeschooling concept or belittling the parents to choose that route. It’s simply acknowledging that certain things cannot be taught through homeschooling and that such things may be crucially important in a child’s development.

    Evan’s case is obviously not the norm, but this should be an opportunity to truly evaluate the pros and cons of homeschooling and not ignore criticism.

  21. If he really is autistic that’s B.S. that he gets to compete in the spelling bee. Would you want to go up against Rain Man in a math competition? Totally unfair.