Spellbound: Arizona middle schoolers compete in national spelling bee

Tazbah Spruhan from Tséhootsooí Middle School in Window Rock got a very difficult word in round one – Gruenendael. But the Navajo teen said she was proud for the chance to be on a national stage representing Native Americans. (Photo by Erin Murphy/Cronkite News)

Opal Mishra, 12, a sixth-grade student at Basha Accelerated Middle School, said she did not feel nervous during the first rounds of the bee – and showed it on stage, with confident answers. (Photo by Erin Murphy/Cronkite News)

From second from left in the first row, Tazbah Spruhan from Window Rock, Karen Baaba Opoku-Appoh from Marana and Opal Mishra from Chandler wait for the first round of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. (Photo by Erin Murphy/Cronkite News)

Karen Baaba Opoku-Appoh, an eighth-grade student at Marana Middle School, said she competed in her first spelling bee in fourth grade, and prepares by rigorously reviewing words in the dictionary. (Photo by Erin Murphy/Cronkite News)

The logo of the Scripps National Spellng Bee looms over the stage of the competition at National Harbor outside Washington, D.C. The 2023 competition is the 95th. (Photo by Erin Murphy/Cronkite News)

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – Opal Mishra stood under the stage lights at the 2023 Scripps National Spelling Bee Tuesday, waiting to hear the word that could mark the end of months of hard work and preparation or let her advance to the next round.

A moment of silence fell over the ballroom before it was broken by the announcer giving the sixth grader her word – hyssop, a European mint.

Unlike the first three spellers of the day, Opal didn’t ask for the word origin or the definition. She took a deep breath and confidently spelled “h-y-s-s-o-p,” sparking an eruption of applause as the first to correctly spell a word in the 95th annual bee.

“I just try not to feel nervous,” the Basha Accelerated Middle School sixth grader said after Tuesday’s first round. “I don’t really feel nervous.”

Opal, 12, was the youngest of the three Arizona middle schoolers who were among the 229 young spellers from around the U.S. and a handful of foreign countries competing at the bee.

The winner of the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee gets a copy of the Scripps Cup as well as cash prizes and other gifts. (Photo by Erin Murphy/Cronkite News)

In addition to their familiar turn in front of the microphone, when often-nervous contestants have to spell out a word, competitors in the second round were given another word and had to choose the correct definition from among three choices.

Before they came to Washington, the spellers also had to take a written test that allowed bee organizers to gauge the level of difficulty of words to be used in the competition.

But some words were clearly harder than others, as Tazbah Spruhan from Tséhootsooí Middle School in Window Rock learned when she was given the word “Groenendael” to spell in the first round.

“On stage it’s very nerve-wracking because I heard the words other people were getting and I thought, ‘Maybe I got this,'” said Tazbah, 13, an eighth grader. “But then I got a really hard word so that was a little disappointing.”

Tazbah took the precautionary steps of most spellers, asking for the definition and the root of Groenendael – a breed of Belgian sheepdog. Ultimately, it did not help, as she spelled the word “Grunendoll” and heard the dreaded bell indicating a misspelling.

She was clearly upset after her loss, but recovered quickly and returned Tuesday afternoon to cheer on her fellow Arizona spellers in round three.

Opal and Arizona’s third competitor, Karen Baaba Opoku-Appoh, both survived the first three rounds Tuesday and will compete Wednesday morning in the quarterfinals. That round is followed by the semifinals Wednesday night and that national finals on Thursday.

Organizers said this is the first time in several years that two Arizona spellers have advanced to the quarterfinals.

Tuesday was not the first time Opal and Karen have faced off against one another – both spellers qualified for the national bee after competing in the Arizona Educational Foundation’s Arizona Spelling Bee in March.

(Video by Isabel Garcia/Cronkite News)

Karen, 14, said she competed in her first bee in fourth grade. Now an eighth-grade student at Marana Middle School, she said she prepares before every bee by studying as many terms and definitions as she can from Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary. a tactic that won her first place over the 26 other spellers in the Arizona Spelling Bee.

“Make sure you learn the root words because they are really helpful and then make sure you know all the origins of the words and if you have good memorization skills, definitely make sure you memorize a lot of the words,” she said.

Karen advanced to the semifinals by correctly spelling “wapiti” and “cyclical” and currently defining “immolate” through the first three rounds. She said she spent her time between rounds studying the dictionary.

“I used the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary and then I also used the official word app, called Word Club, and then I used another website called HighScope, so yeah those were my main study resources,” she said.

Tazbah, who prepared for the bee by studying various language spelling patterns, said she was disappointed to get “a really hard word” in the first round. But the Navajo teen – the only Native American in this year’s competition, according to organizers -was still proud to be representing her Native American culture on the national stage.

“I’m very proud to be representing my people because we don’t have a lot of representation, or good representation, so I just feel proud to be here and to be Native here,” Tazbah said.

Sydney Carruth syd-knee kuh-rooth (she/her/hers)
News Reporter, Washington, D.C.

Sydney Carruth expects to graduate in the August 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communication and has a bachelor’s degree in political science from ASU’s School of Politics and Global Studies. Carruth is a money reporter at the Cronkite News Washington, D.C., bureau and has interned at The Arizona Republic as a breaking news reporter.

Erin Murphy eh-rin mer-fee (she/her)
News Reporter, Washington, D.C.

Erin Murphy expects to graduate from Dublin City University in November 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Murphy is a reporter at the Cronkite News Washington, D.C., bureau and was deputy editor of arts and culture of The College View, DCU’s student publication.

Isabel Garcia(she/ her)
News Reporter, Washington, D.C.

Isabel Garcia expects to graduate in December 2023 with a master’s in mass communication. Garcia is a reporter at the Cronkite News Washington, D.C., bureau and has worked as a communication specialist for Girl Scouts of the Desert Southwest and LIFEchurch El Paso.