Number nerds, bookworms converge at Spelling Bee

Yasir Hasnain
In this May 16, 2014 photo, 13-year-old Yasir Hasnain, an eighth-grader at Maroa-Forsyth Middle School is seen at home Forsyth, Ill. Hasnain will be representing the region at the 2014 Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., for a fourth time. He’s been bearing down in an attempt to make it to the semi-finals of the spelling bee, which will be held Wednesday and Thursday, May 28-29. (AP Photo/Herald & Review, Danny Damiani)

HERNDON, Va. (AP) — Ask Jae Canetti to recite pi, and the numbers come out like a blur. Just when it sounds as if he’s about to stop, he takes a deep breath and continues. On and on. Until he’s reached the 131st digit.
“It’s really nothing more than a stress-relief tactic,” the 12-year-old after he was finally done. “Sometimes, if I’m stressed, I’ll just memorize five digits or something like that.”
Some kids bite their nails. Jae learns pi.
This week, he will stand before a national audience and recite letters, not numbers. The sixth-grader from Reston, Virginia, will be one of the favorites when the three-day competition begins Tuesday at the Scripps National Spelling Bee, having qualified for the third time for America’s favorite competitive gathering of bright, way-off-the-charts youngsters.
Math might seem out of place at such an event. Smart people, at least according to conventional wisdom, are supposed either bookworms or number nerds. Not both.
But Jae and plenty of other spellers defy that convention. Second-time Bee participant Brian Reinhart, a 14-year-old from Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, has already completed the math curriculum at Florida Atlantic University. And, of course, there was 2007 national Bee champion Evan O’Dorney, who had barely finished hoisting the trophy when he stated a preference for math and music, declaring that “spelling is just a bunch of memorization.”
So do spelling and math go hand-in-hand? For some, the answer is yes.
“A lot of these competitors use roots — Greek roots, Latin roots, German roots, Scandinavian roots, whatever they might be — to figure out how to spell a word,” Brian said. “That’s really just finding patterns. And that’s all that math is, is finding patterns, and using those patterns to solve problems.”
That was more or less the thought process for another of this year’s favorites, Vanya Shivashankar of Olathe, Kansas, when she was given the word “myelogenous” last year on her way to a fifth place finish. Watching her spell the word was like watching a mathematician work out an equation: Solve the first half, then the second half, then add the two parts together.
Jae burst on the scene when he made the semifinals two years ago at age 10. In addition to his fun with pi, he can solve a Rubik’s Cube in less than 40 seconds and shuttles back-and-forth between elementary schools so that he can take advanced math classes. His number prowess also fits into his passion for the stat-filled sport of baseball — he’s a pitcher for his Little League team and recently threw out the first pitch at a minor league game.
“We believe in a more balanced lifestyle,” he said, relaxing with his parents in the classroom where he takes a geometry class. “Spending, like, 10 hours of your day locked up in a dark cage studying isn’t what I want to do with the first 10 years of my life.”
Jae talks almost as fast as he recites pi, and he sounds mature beyond his years. He had a lot of growing up to do last year when, buoyed by his strong performance in 2012, he returned to the Bee and failed to get out of the preliminaries.
“I think I was kind of taking it for granted that I was going to get into the semifinals, that I had a better chance than most,” Jae said. “I feel like I was a little arrogant coming into it.”
But Jae then spoke of a more serious distraction. His mother, who is also his spelling coach, was diagnosed with throat cancer several weeks before the Bee, and he had to study essentially on his own for a competition that suddenly felt a lot more trivial.
“It all kind of snowballed,” Jae said.
His father, Craig, tried to help, but that comically fell apart one day when he was reading to Jae a list of words with Slavic origin.
“Down the list the next one was ‘slave,’ and he thought it was going to be something much more complicated, so he went ‘slah-vay,'” Jae’s mother, Catherine Kwon, said with a laugh. “That’s when he got fired as coach.”
Kwon underwent surgery and is now in remission — “She’s back,” her husband said proudly — and the family is ready for Jae’s latest shot at spelling glory, realizing that he will need all the breaks to fall his way.
That’s where spelling and math differ. With numbers, you always get the correct answer if you use the correct formula. In the English language, where “f” and “ph” make the same sound and some spellings make no sense at all, there’s a randomness that will stump every competitor but one.
“You know you’re going to get up, get a word you don’t know and probably misspell it,” Jae said. “You can know all your roots and you can guess it — and you can still get dinged out.”
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