NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – Penda Ba stood centerstage at the 90th Annual Scripps National Spelling Bee. She held her nametag out and ran her finger over it pensively as if she were writing out a word.
“S-E-Q-U-E-S-T-R-A-T-I-O-N,” she spelled, peering down at the judges in front of her.
Penda, a Gilbert eighth-grader representing Sossaman Middle School, was one of two Arizonans to compete against 291 other students in the 2017 bee at the Gaylord Convention Center just outside Washington.
“At first you get really, really nervous,” Penda said this week. “Then when you get up to the microphone, it just dissolves. You don’t feel nervous at all, it kind of disappears.”
Penda made it through both spelling rounds Wednesday, but did not have enough points from preliminary rounds to be one of the 40 who advanced to Thursday’s national final round.
Kelly Haven, a sixth-grader representing the Navajo Nation, had even less luck, getting the word “spessartine” – a manganese aluminum garnet containing minor amounts of other elements – during Wednesday morning’s competition.
Kelly walked off the stage with a grimace after the bell rang to indicate her spelling was incorrect.
“My mind went blank,” Kelly said afterwards. “It was a good thing I wasn’t looking out in the crowd.
“I was thinking, ‘Well, I don’t really know this word.’ And then, ‘I know this word, I know I’ve seen it before, I just can’t picture it in my head,'” she said.
That ding marked the end of months of studying, practices and bees.
“She said from a very young age, ‘I’m going to make it there. I’m going to go to Washington, D.C., and do this,'” said Kelly’s mother, Dina Haven.
“To us, this was just this dream, like it would be amazing if she does do it,” Dina said before Wednesday’s competition. “Then she kept winning and winning, and closer and closer. And she got here.”
-Cronkite News video by Noelle Lilley
Kelly, a student at Tsehootsooi Intermediate Learning Center in Fort Defiance on the Navajo Nation, wore a traditional Navajo outfit and turquoise jewerly on stage Wednesday, a decorative belt wrapped around her waist and her hair pulled back by a colorful hair piece.
Dina, a former high school teacher, said her daughter acts as a role model for other young Navajo students.
“It’s huge for the kids looking at her and watching her,” Dina said of her daughter. “I think she’s inspired so many kids already because she’s a Navajo girl…. The other kids look to her and think, ‘I can do that one day.'”
The bee was a long time coming for both students.
Kelly stumbled upon spelling in first grade when a speech impediment led her to immerse herself in language studies. That year, she won her school’s spelling bee.
She kept competing, just missing the national bee last year when she finished second in the 2016 Navajo Nation Spelling Bee.
“I’ve loved this for the longest time,” Kelly said. “It’s important to me because I’m doing this for myself and not for other people.”
It was similar for Penda, who fell into spelling bees naturally in fourth grade after her teacher noticed that she consecutively aced all her spelling tests. Penda said her teacher would quiz her in the school halls before classes and she eventually entered the spelling competitions.
— NationalSpellingBee (@ScrippsBee) May 31, 2017
“I like how there’s only 26 letters in the alphabet, and there’s like millions and millions and millions of ways they’re arranged,” she said.
Preparing for Scripps, Penda spent months poring over note cards, memorizing everything from definitions to etymologies. Her trick, she said, is to flip a random page of the dictionary every day and read.
“She’s competing with the best of the best. Being on a stage with all these very bright kids, it’s a good example for all the other kids in families who want to be champions,” said her dad, Abdoulaye Ba.
He was at the head of a flock of family that surrounded Penda on Wednesday, lending support at the competition after months of helping her study for the bee. Abdoulaye puffed his chest out in pride as he described his daughter’s calm demeanor on stage through the spelling rounds.
Penda, who only found out later Wednesday that she did not make the list of finalists, said she felt unsure going into preliminary rounds Tuesday and her father told her that whatever happened, they’d still be proud.
“We’re just excited for the experience, for her to be at the national stage,” he said. “It means the world to us.”