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Rasa Fournier

The Buzz On The Bee

Prepare to be amazed by some super smart local students in the Hawaii State Spelling Bee Saturday. It will be televised by PBS/KHET

You’ve seen it on TV, and it’s another world. Parents looks on with anxious smiles as their child takes the stage. A dour-faced announcer leans into the mic, pronounces a word that sounds like gibberish to most curious viewers, and the child falteringly spells out “c-y-m-o-t-r-ic-h-o-u-s.”

That was the champion word (meaning “having wavy hair”) at last year’s Scripps National Spelling Bee, which is broadcast live on ESPN, sports commentator and all. These contestants aren’t flashing their muscles, beauty or physical prowess, but their brains’ well-exercised left hemisphere.

Just when you’re thinking there’s no way on earth this kid’s going to get this word (in addition to, how can this middle school kid be that much smarter than I am?), the child finishes off the combination of letters and voila! “That is correct,” proclaims the announcer.

But to get to nationals is a long journey.

The process in Hawaii began last year in August with 80 public, private and charter schools registering their fourth- to eighth-graders to participate.

Classrooms have competitions, then there’s a schoolwide competition. The top two spellers from each school bee move on to the district bee.

And the top two spellers from each of the seven district bees are entered into the aio Hawaii State Spelling Bee March 24 (aiohawaiistatespellingbee.org). It’ll be broadcast live on PBS Hawaii/KHET at 7 p.m. with a radio simulcast on ESPN 1500 AM. Look for the national bee on ESPN TV May 29-31.

Last year’s state finalists Christopher Kim and Esther Kim (no relation) duked it out over words like igneous, plasmalemma, nonage, jackanapes and excursus before Christopher prevailed with obfuscatory in round 43.

Some of the 14 spellers who have won their way to competing in this year’s state bee offer insight into the preparation that goes into being a spelling champ.

Tyrone Sumibcay, an eighth-grader at Holy Family Catholic Academy in Honolulu, also participated in states last year. It wasn’t exactly excitement he was feeling when he won at the district level with “peaceable” this year.

“It’s more like redemption from last year,” says the 13-year-old who enjoys math, and playing volleyball and ukulele. But when it gets close to bee time, it’s all about studying.

“The national spelling bee website (spellingbee.com) has a pretty extensive list of words that we study,” says Sumibcay’s spelling coach Kym Roley. “Tyrone has an extensive knowledge of words beyond the spelling bee because they can ask any word from the dictionary.

“What I practice with Tyrone is when I give him a word, he has to manage his impulsivity to want to spell it right away. I want him to take a breath and to always ask a question – definition, language of origin, part of speech, alternate pronunciations, repeat the word, use it in a sentence -even if he’s 100 percent sure how to spell the word. Because once you spell it wrong, you’re out.

“Some of it is luck of the draw, too. You may end up getting a word like musubi and somebody from Honolulu would understand that word whereas someone from, say, Mexico might not.

“Tyrone is very well-rounded,” she adds. “He’s not just a spelling geek.”

Yet, when it’s bee season, he does immerse himself in spelling through his language arts class with Roley (a teacher and spelling bee coordinator at Holy Family) and lunchtime study with her, a separate vocabulary class, as well as home study. He also was recently involved in World Spelling Day on the Internet, where he placed 52nd in his age group.

“Kids from all over the world play,” says Sumibcay of the March 6 event. “The program (speaks) a word and you have 60 seconds to (type) it.”

Words are such a part of his life that even while he’s listening to music as he drifts off to sleep, he’ll find himself spelling the words out in his head.

On Kaua’i, Athena Abadilla, an eighth-grader at St. Theresa School, is following in her older sister’s steps as a spelling bee contestant. This is Abadilla’s second time in the state bee (the school didn’t participate last year). She still remembers “kitsch” as the word that ended her previous run.

When she’s not studying at home with mom, and sometimes dad (Dan, a former bee coordinator at St. Theresa), she enjoys creative writing, drawing and reading. She manages to read for pure fun without getting caught up in words and roots.

When the bee is at hand, says Dan, “the parents appear to be more nervous than the contestants. I find myself looking more at the parents.”

The parents get in some learning too. From barely knowing any of the words he heard at the competitions when his first daughter entered, he now has a pretty strong grasp of some of the more unusual entries in the dictionary.

For our next speller, Taggart Nakamoto, the bee is a family affair. He follows in the footsteps of his two older brothers, both bee veterans, and his three younger siblings are showing an interest as well. Nakamoto is in sixth grade at Konawaena Middle School on the Big Island, and a shy streak has him more ready to get on stage and spell than endure a one-on-one interview.

He does the bulk of his studying at home with his coaches, dad Shan, and mom Traci.

“There are moments where you have to find the right strategy because what worked for his brothers didn’t always work for Taggart,” says Shan.

“We’ve also got some word root cards that are strategically placed throughout the house,” adds Traci. “You can take a word you’ve never heard before and be able to break it into parts. There are patterns to some of it, and then there are words that don’t have any pattern at all. Latin and Greek roots help, but then you get some of those Asian languages and it’s just a matter of exposure.”

To shake off the words, Taggart loves to go bike riding. But he tends to incorporate words into his fun. He enjoys reading fantasy and homing in on some of the tougher vocab words, and his dad quizzes him on words while he plays his Nintendo DS. Who says guys can’t multi-task?

When the moment of reckoning is at hand, “we try to remind him that he’s not really competing against the other kids,” says Shan. “He’s competing against the list of words that he studied, against each word as it comes. No one is getting the same word, so you’re just competing against yourself.”

Taggart admits to mixed feelings of excitement and nervousness as the big day approaches.

As far as conquering his shyness, Dad says opportunities to speak at church and being in the Boy Scouts have helped.

Lastly, we have the state bee’s youngest contestant, Ashley Membrere, a spunky fourth-grader from Makakilo Elementary.

The district challenge proved both exciting and scary, “but I felt very happy that I accomplished it,” says the 9-year-old whose winning word – laugh at the irony – was “behemoth.” Her sparkly, young voice utters it like a pro.

When she’s taking a break from her daily word-learning, you’ll find Membrere practicing tae kwon do. She’s unfazed at the prospect of going up against a group of children all older than her.

“It doesn’t bother me at all. I just have to try my best.”

All four youngsters weighed in on what on earth would have them willing to give up play time and other “fun” activities to pore over words.

Sumibcay: “It’s really fun to see how many words there are in the world and it’s interesting learning new words every day.”

Nakamoto: “I wanted to do it because my brothers had done it.”

Abadilla: “It’s the opportunity to go and travel and meet new people who have the same interest in academic stuff.”

Membrere: “I can learn about new languages and spell words that I could use later on.”

And how nervous do they get the night before?

Abadilla: “Oh, really nervous, but I try to get some sleep.”

Nakamoto: “I feel a little nervous, but I can fall asleep fine.”

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