Spell It Out: Eighth Grader Competes for National Title

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Henley Middle School eighth grader Henry Mathewes won the Daily Progress Regional spelling bee and will compete in the Scripps National Spelling Bee in early June. Photo: Lisa Martin.

Henley Middle School eighth grader Henry Mathewes will head to the Scripps National Spelling Bee in early June to join more than 200 regional champions from around the U.S. to compete for the title of best speller of them all. 

He began by winning his school bee at Henley, then the countywide bee, and then the regional bee, which hosted 16 winners from Albemarle, Charlottesville, Waynesboro, Staunton, Augusta, Greene, Nelson, and Fluvanna as well as several area private schools. Henry’s winning word was “quittance,” which means “a release from a debt or obligation.”

How does one prepare for all the words in the English language? “They [Scripps] give you three lists to study, ranked from easiest to hardest,” said Henry. “I’m planning to go through all three lists with, of course, a lot more focus on the harder words. I have two months to prepare, so I’m probably going to work on it every day for maybe 30 minutes a day.” While the initial school-level study list contained 450 words, at the national level the three lists combined contain 4,000 words.

Henry’s family has been his biggest band of supporters, cheering him on and calling words to him throughout the series of competitions. “If I miss a word, I’ll keep trying at that moment until I get it right,” he said, “then we go back to it later to make sure I remember it.” His classmates at Henley and his teachers have cheered him on as well. 

National-level spellers are well-versed in their options to have the word-caller clarify, define, and explain each word. Contestants can ask for the definition and language of origin and have the word repeated and used in a sentence, and many spellers do all of these even if they are familiar with the word, just to be sure. “At the school level I don’t think I asked for those things because they started with easier words, but at the county I asked for a definition and at the regional I also asked to use it in a sentence,” said Henry. “At the national bee I’ll probably do all of them.”

If a speller has a background in languages, knowing the word’s language of origin can be a helpful clue to its spelling. “I’ve always liked languages, especially older European languages, so I’m able to recognize a couple of them,” said Henry. “I can recognize certain Latin roots and I know some Greek, but most of the Greek words came through Latin. French and German are the two languages that filtered into English, but a lot of the spelling bee is medical and scientific terms, and that’s a lot of Latin.”

Henry says that preparation is key to tamping down his nerves during the bees. “You’re having to watch other people either get it right or go out—both of which are scary, right?” he said. “But I would say that I understood that I had gone through probably all of the words they might ask, so I was confident that I either knew most of the words, or that I could guess most of the words. So, I wasn’t the most nervous. I think my family was more nervous, actually.”

Henry’s mom Jenny confirmed the nerves and said that Henry’s gift for words was obvious early on. “We went to his preschool meeting when he was maybe two, and the teacher said he was unusually verbal,” she said. “The teacher said, ‘It’s so interesting having Henry in the class, because it lets us know what the other two-year-olds are thinking.’ He just talked in full, descriptive sentences.”

Most of the actual bee time for competitors is spent watching or listening to other kids spell, and many of them (and likely most of the audience) are mentally spelling the word right alongside them. “I try to do it in my head at the same speed as them,” said Henry. “What’s really nerve-wracking is when I get it wrong and they get it right, and then it’s like, ‘Oh! If I’d gotten that word I’d be out.’ There are other times when the announcer pronounces a word in a different way than you would have expected it,” he said. “At the regional bee the word was ‘caramel’ but the announcer pronounced it ‘car-mel,’ and the speller, who is a family friend of ours, came in second.”

Thinking about the nexus of luck, skill, and preparation, Henry sees a balance in the factors that go into winning this kind of competition. “Luck plays a role, it does,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s bigger than skill, generally. But then again, if you don’t have that skill to know a word you can also rely on the luck, because it’s not just about getting the word you know how to spell, it’s also about guessing how to spell it. So there are a couple of places the luck comes in.”

Henry is pretty used to winning spelling bees—the last time he took any award lower than first was when he placed second in his fifth grade bee at Murray Elementary. Even as spelling wanes as an academic subject, Henley Middle School has a bit of a spelling dynasty going, as former student Layla Bouber won the regional bee in both 2019 and 2020. “There’s less spelling nowadays, I guess because the English teachers understand that we have spellcheck and we do so much on the computer,” he said.

Why is Henry so good, then? “It’s mostly because I read a lot and so I see a lot of words,” he said. “Reading a lot of different kinds of books is really helpful. I prefer nonfiction to fiction, which probably has more different kinds of words than fiction. Both my parents like to read and my sister loves it, and I grew up in a household with lots of books. We don’t even have a [conventional] TV.”

The Scripps National Bee was cancelled in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, and in 2021 there was an unprecedented 8-way tie for the trophy. Henry and his family will travel to Maryland in late May to take part in a full week of bee activities, which include fun group events along with several early rounds of competition before the big televised final night on June 2. He’ll be wearing his lucky black sweatpants that he wore both for the county bee and also when his group won the We the People civics competition at Henley. Best of luck, Henry! 

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Lisa Martin joined the Gazette in 2017 and writes about education and local government. She also writes in-depth pieces about division-wide education issues and broader investigative pieces on topics from recycling to development to living with wildlife. Her Coyotes in Crozet story won a 2017 Virginia Press Association “Best in Show” award for the Gazette. Martin has a Ph.D. from the University of Texas, taught college for several years, and writes fiction and poetry. She co-authored a children’s trilogy about two adventuring cats, the Anton and Cecil series, which got rave reviews from the New York Times Book Review, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly and others.

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