The Meaning of Spelling

When nine-year-old Fatima Ali is restless, and she has trouble falling asleep, she lays down in bed and spells out words in her head to help her get to sleep. She often does it alongside her mother, who isn’t a native English speaker and uses this bedside exercise to practice her pronunciation too. Mom tucks Ali in and gives her a word to spell, Ali sometimes corrects her, then spells the word out loud. Psychiatrist? P-s-y-c-h-i-a… until she dozes off.

Ali, a fourth grader from P.S. 94 Kings College School, also used this nighttime activity to prepare for the district spelling bee, which was held this Saturday. She, alongside third, fourth and fifth graders from all over the Bronx, participated in the 7th annual S.M.A.R.T.S Spelling Bee hosted by New York State Senator Luis Sepulveda on Saturday. The winners received $1,000 to start saving up for their college tuition. But the spelling bee, held at Adlai E. Stevenson High School, meant so much more than who won and who lost, however. Students, parents, teachers, school principals and even linguistic experts, all learned about the all-American tradition of spelling competitions and how they play a big part in children’s educational development, nurturing a sense of community, and, especially in a city as multicultural as New York City, family bonding over learning the English language.

“It is an opportunity for family members to work together with the students, they too learn and practice spelling and memorizing words,” said Joanne Clarke, P.S. 94’s spelling bee coordinator, who had prepared a laminated paper with a spelling bee logo and all the reasons why participating in a spelling bee is helpful for students. She supervised three children from her school as they read in the library and prepped.

While P.S. 94 sent three students to the district spelling bee, as they qualified at the top of their annual school spelling bee, St. Thomas Aquinas School sent three children from each grade due to their performance in class. “I infer I was selected for the spelling bee because of my performance in the spelling tests,” said 10-year-old Roe Peguero, speaking with the poise and vocabulary of a grown adult.

Nine of St. Thomas Aquinas school’s wide-eyed students in royal blue gym uniforms sat around a room and tested each other on the hardest words they could think of. They used their multilingual knowledge to help them spell, because they could identify similar roots in the Spanish or French words they speak at home. “Spell refrigerator! Spell perseverance!” They were so excited they even turned to me and forced me to spell.

Some of the students were returning to the spelling bee for a second year, and they were dedicated to getting further in the spelling rounds. Rachel Alamo, a fourth grader, said this was a very important occasion for her to “redeem” herself after misspelling “herb” last year. Some children swore they’d only be thinking about winning as soon as they walked into room, and others said they were happy to just go and make friends. Some had even greater goals in mind.

Left to right. Rachel Alamo, Daniel Sutton, Roderic Rodriguez and Roe Peguero, from St. Thomas Aquinas School.

“I want to be a neurosurgeon when I grow up, so I want to win the money, so I can go to a good private school,” said 11-year-old Daniel Sutton. He explained how he’d already thought everything through. Participating in the spelling bee would help him in his SAT tests and increase his chances of getting into a better college, he said.

Sarah Kobalaraz, their official spelling-bee coach, is delighted that this extra-curricular activity helps students in a cross-disciplinary way. “It’s exposing them to new vocabulary, it’s enhancing their reading comprehension and it’s improving their writing,” she said. While going around the room and talking to her students about what the spelling bee meant to them, it dawned on her how much of an impact it makes: “That moment on stage, and those words they’re spelling, will stay with them forever.”

Jessica Perez-Maldonado, the principal of St. Thomas Aquinas School, was proud that her school was the only Catholic school represented. “We call ourselves golden eagles and one of our values is ‘citizenship’, so by participating in the spelling bee our students are giving back to the community,” she said. This resonated with her students, as they said they wanted to show their community that they were “good sports.”

That was the reason the S.M.A.R.T.S spelling bee was launched in the first place, and is now a tradition. “Our Bronx school community is the heart of our district; these students are the future of our neighborhoods,” said New York State Senator Luis Sepulveda, “The vision is to have each year with more schools than the year before, involving our community at a larger scale and creating educational advantages for our students in the district.”

Haeleii Ireland from P.S. 53X won for the category of 3rd grade, Didarul Choudhury from P.S. 106 was the 4th grade winner, and Steven Baez from P.S. 150 Charles James Fox won for 5th grade. Some kids left heartbroken that they did not win but the senator assured them that they had a chance to come back next year to win, and for 5th graders, there’s a possibility of opening the competition to include 6th graders for next year.