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As National Spelling Bee Grows, Students Play A Numbers Game

(Photo by Annika Cline - KJZZ)
Nicola Ferguson is the 2016 Arizona Spelling Bee champion.

Elementary and middle-school students will take over Washington D.C. next month to compete in the Scripps National Spelling Bee. And getting there isn’t easy as A-B-C.

Scherenschnitte was the winning word in last year’s Scripps Bee. And so was nunatak.

It was a tie, but both winners were exuberant - and they should be, considering what it took to get there. See, the spelling bee is actually a numbers game.

“The Scripps National Spelling Bee program each year involves more than 11 million kids across the country and around the world,” said Paige Kimble, executive director of the Scripps Bee and 1981 bee champion.

Kimble said the kids at the national bee are funneled from smaller bees held in every U.S. state, territory, commonwealth, and five other countries. If they make it to the final round of 12 students, “we’re talking about the top one millionth of 1 percent of the spelling bee participating population,” Kimble said.

She said that population is still growing. This May, 285 elementary and middle-school students will go to Washington D.C. to spell it out for the top spot.

“All right, how about tachistoscope?” Chris Ferguson asked his daughter, Nicola, over their dining room table one afternoon. They were practicing Scripps words together.

“Does it have anything to do with vision at all?” Nicola asked.

“It’s an apparatus for the brief exposure of visual stimuli…” Ferguson began to explain.

Nicola won this year’s Arizona Spelling Bee, hosted by the Arizona Educational Foundation. It was her first time in a state-level bee, so it’ll be her first time going to nationals, too.

She and her parents spend about a half-hour a day studying. Nicola’s pretty busy - when she’s not spelling, she’s reading, or practicing the violin.

“When I first get home, my first thought isn’t really to prep for the spelling bee, it’s usually I need to get my homework done as fast as possible so I don’t have to worry about it,” she said.

She’s got a natural talent for spelling new words, evidenced by her correct spelling of tachistoscope. But she’ll also have to remember the three C’s - calm, cool and collected.

ESPN broadcasts the final round on prime time, creating buzz around the bee and even more sweat about being on stage.  

“It’s pretty intimidating for those kids when they get to that level to be able to compete,” said Bobbie O’Boyle, executive director of the Arizona Educational Foundation. 

“I think it takes a certain amount of poise and confidence and just getting those nerves settled down at that level, because it’s a huge deal there,” O’Boyle said.

It can feel so tempting to focus on the numbers: Will I make it into the top 72? The top 12? Top two?

But Nicola and her family want to enjoy D.C., too.

“She’s a marine biologist-to-be, so what actually excited her the most is going to the Baltimore Aquarium, so we’ll probably do that,’ Ferguson said.

“That way the time I spend before the spelling bee will be happy so, like, if I get out then at least I will have seen the fish,” Nicola added.

And who knows, the name of one of those fish could be the winning word this year.

Barramundi, anyone?

Annika Cline was born in Germany, raised in California and transplanted to Arizona. She studied at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.Cline produces and reports for KJZZ’s original production, The Show, covering stories from all corners of the Valley as well as bringing listeners a slice of their own community in the weekly Sounds of the City series.Cline also volunteers as an art instructor for foster youths and their families.