When I was 11, my sister Karina went to the Scripps National Spelling Bee. She was 13. At the time she was one of the smartest people I knew. She still is.
And she had to be. My family’s from Pennsylvania — no half stepping, it’s a big state and the competition is rough. The word she won on was ‘gratinate’. I’ll never forget it.
After Karina won our regional Bee in Harrisburg, it was time to get serious for the national competition.
The prep was insane.
My parents are native Spanish speakers (from the Dominican Republic) so they knew they had to get her a tutor. Once they started asking around, though, they realised they needed to get her two.
To get ready, Karina didn’t just look up difficult words and memorize how to spell them. It was much more intense than that. She learned dead languages. She studied Greek and Latin roots. She studied them for hours.
When kids hear a word they don’t know at Scripps Bee, their minds race to break down how it may be spelled based on where the words come from — where they were born. That’s why everyone asks the root of the word. It’s not a stall tactic, it’s a survival skill.
The contestants know that Greek root words that make a Z sound are actually spelled with an X, for a simple example.
So while I was practicing piano or playing soccer outside, my sister was raising the dead. Learning how to construct words she would never speak. I was in awe. She got a ton of attention, and I got to ride a limo to Washington. I wanted to be in the Bee.
But it was a TON of work. I never did it.
All in all, though, it has to be said that the best way to get to the Spelling Bee is simple — you read. You read constantly. You read everything. You don’t get intimidated by a book that people say is above you reading level — you’re a little kid, and you just crush it.
That’s what my sister did.
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