FINDLAY - Meet 13-year-old Keith "Kai" Roberts III.
The Glenwood Middle School honors student is a three-sport athlete and a voracious reader. While pleasant and well-behaved, his extroverted personality can bend toward lighthearted irreverence.
Kai also plays some instruments. Just ask his mother, Nicole Lawrence.
"He plays four musical instruments," she said.
"Five! Five!," he announces. "Piccolo is different from the flute."
This week Kai will be in Washington representing northwest Ohio in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, which got under way yesterday and concludes Friday when a champion emerges from the field of 288 contestants.
He and his mother are the recipients of an all-expenses-paid trip on behalf of The Blade, the grand prize for Kai's first-place finish at the 2008 Blade Northwest Ohio Champion Spelling Bee in March.
During an interview last week at home, Kai, a Findlay eighth grader, said he was still in disbelief that he outperformed the 65 others at the regional match.
He had never even heard of his winning word before: "escarole" (an annual or biennial herb widely cultivated as a salad plant)
Secondly, it seemed that everyone around him - friends, teachers, even mom - kept insinuating that he wasn't going to win.
True, the odds were unfavorable. Yes, he would have felt some disappointment and maybe hurt pride if he had lost.
But skepticism no matter how well-intentioned is still skepticism.
"I basically told him that he wasn't going to win regionals," his mother said. "I had to eat my words on that."
Nevertheless, Mrs. Lawrence has played a key role in her son's preparations, quizzing him with words and highlighting the ones that cause him trouble.
This time Kai has heard nothing but positive encouragement leading up to the competition. He said his friends at school began rooting especially hard for him after learning that the national champion takes home $35,000 in cash, among other prizes.
"Now it's mostly like, 'I hope you win. Give me some money if you win,'•" he said.
Kai is not one of those youths for whom spelling bees are a year-round sport of flashcard flipping.
Rather, he attributes his acumen to attentive book reading and the word prefix and suffix exercises that he does in language arts class.
Although he likes to shrug off his personal stake in the contest's outcome, his memories of past experiences suggest otherwise. He can still recall the embarrassment from a fourth-grade spelling bee when he tripped up on "campaign."
"I knew there was a G in there somewhere and I didn't know where to put it."
He also has yet to get over flubbing "chinchilla" at last year's Hancock County spelling bee.
"I put one L in it," he said. "It still eats away at me."
In addition to piccolo, Kai plays violin, guitar, flute, and piano, an instrument he learned from his mother. The guitar he plays belonged to his father, who died 10 years ago.
An only child, Kai also lives with his stepfather, Ron Lawrence, a truck driver. Mrs. Lawrence works as an account manager at YMT International Inc. and part time at a video store.
Kai will be in Washington at the same time this week as many of his classmates because it's the destination of this year's eighth-grade trip. The "vacations" overlap, as he put it.
The word "vacation" prompted his mom to speak up.
"But you have work to do," she said.
"Spelling isn't work, it's a hobby," he replied.
But won't you be nervous in front of all those people?
"Everything in life that's fun makes you nervous. That's my philosophy," Kai said, smiling through his braces. "I could go on - I have lots of philosophies."
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