When stumped, some write words on their palm with their finger. Others silently mouth out the letters. Some close their eyes, arranging letters in their mind. Phoebe Jackson spins.
At least, she does when she practices spelling, and she’s been doing plenty of that lately. She practices with friends and with her mom. She practices by herself. She reads in the car on the way to other competitions.
“Whenever I have free time, I always go through words in my head,” she said. “I’ve accidentally dreamed about spelling words.”
Now, it’s time for the big competition, though she said she won’t let nerves jumble the words in her head. Phoebe, 12, a sixth grader at Woodmore Elementary School, will compete against 280 other top spellers in the National Spelling Bee in Washington.
Phoebe earned her spot at the national competition by winning the 2014 Blade Northwest Ohio Championship Spelling Bee. The Blade paid for her trip to the National Spelling Bee.
The preliminary round starts at 8 a.m. Wednesday and will be streamed by ESPN3. Semifinals are the next day, with the championship round Friday, live on ESPN.
Phoebe admitted she’ll likely be nervous, but she’s trying not to get too wrapped up in the event. She talked about her mental approach like a seasoned professional athlete: “I take it one word at a time.” “I’m not worried about the championship round.” “I try to keep it simple.“
Some of the bee competitors memorize much of the dictionary and dedicate their young lives to spelling. Phoebe tries to keep it cool.
“You can be totally intense, but think what happens when you miss a word,” she said. “You’d be devastated.”
It helps, mom Krista Jackson said, that big events and crunch time don’t faze Phoebe.
“She tells me that that adrenaline feeling for her is fun,” she said. “For me, it just seems like stress.”
Take this last week. Phoebe was part of her school’s Destination ImagiNation team that competed in the global finals in Knoxville, Tenn. After months of preparation for the problem-solving competition, the team was informed its solution didn’t fit the guidelines. Instead of panicking, they spent the night crafting a new solution.
While two back-to-back high-level competitions of that sort may be too much for most children to take on, Phoebe’s having fun. It helps, mom said, that she gets to meet others with similar interests. And while everyone hopes to win, it helps for smart kids to learn to fail once in a while, Ms. Jackson said.
Phoebe even used her spelling talents for her other interests. To help raise money for the Destination ImagiNation competition, the team held a “Stump Phoebe” fund-raiser. Pay a dollar, and give her a word to spell. If she spelled it right, she kept the money. With maybe 100 words presented, she said she spelled two wrong.
A spelling bee isn’t just raw intelligence. You must learn roots and origins, oddities of language. It takes practice, and an especially tedious sort. Phoebe is a high-energy child, her mom said. When their study sessions start to drag on, Phoebe starts to spin in circles while spelling.
Maybe, under the bright lights, she won’t spin. Maybe she’ll mouth the word or stand perfectly still. Maybe she’ll win, or maybe she’ll get knocked out early.
“We rarely get a chance to celebrate these extremely academic moments,” she said.
So this week, celebrate academics, and the whiz kids at the Spelling Bee, and Phoebe.