The Bee is not to be: Final Arizona spellers out of National Spelling Bee

Karen Opoku-Appoh made it to the quarterfinals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, but was eliminated Wednesday when she misspelled “ordonnance,” mistaking it for “ordinance.” (Photo by Erin Murphy/Cronkite News)

Opal Mishra, 12, on stage Wednesday as she successfully spelled “pointillistic” to the semifinals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. She would be eliminated the semifinal round. (Photo by Erin Murphy/Cronkite News)

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – Standing at the microphone at the Scripps National Spelling Bee may be nerve-wracking for students, but for parents watching their children on stage after months of preparation it’s “emotionally gut-wrenching.”

That’s how Frank Opoku-Appoh described the experience of watching his daughter, Karen Baaba Opoku-Appoh, one of three Arizona spellers competing in this year’s national bee, as she took her turn on stage over the last two days.

“You don’t know what word you’re going to get, you know you’ve done all the preparation, you know you’ve done everything but when she goes up to the microphone it’s really, really gut-wrenching,” he said Wednesday.

But Karen’s turn, and her father’s anxiety, ended Wednesday morning when she incorrectly spelled the word “ordonnance” – meaning arrangement – as “ordinance” in the quarterfinal round.

The only other Arizona speller still in the bee on Wednesday, Opal Mishra, was eliminated in the semifinals Wednesday afternoon when she misspelled “feuillage” – another word for foliage, which she spelled instead.

The Scripps National Spelling Bee includes a week of activities in and around Washington for the more than 200 spellers who competed this year. (Photo by Erin Murphy/Cronkite News)

Head judge Mary Brooks praised Opal, 12, a Basha Accelerated Middle School sixth grader, for her performance throughout the competition.

“Opal, you’ve done an outstanding job and we know you told us you wanted to go to Paris and I think somewhere I read that you’d also like to go to Harvard University and we think after this week’s performance we know there is no dream that’s going to be too big for you, so congratulations,” Brooks said.

It was the end of two days of competition that began with 229 spellers from every state and a handful of foreign countries. In addition to Karen and Opal, Arizona was represented by Tazbah Spruhan, an eighth grader from Tséhootsooí Middle School in Window Rock.

Tazbah, 14, was eliminated Tuesday when she misspelled “Groenendael,” a Belgian sheepdog. She was one of 108 spellers eliminated on the first day, leaving 121 to start the day Wednesday.

Karen, 13, secured her place in the quarterfinals by correctly defining the word “Immolate” – meaning to sacrifice oneself in the interest of some goal or cause – on Tuesday afternoon. Her father said he was shocked when she correctly defined the word.

“Seriously, yesterday I think my heart, like, popped because the vocabulary, the words they gave her, we never did anything and we never learned that word,” Opoku-Appoh said. “Oh my God, she took her time reading and guessed it correctly, I nearly fell off my seat.”

While her luck ran out Wednesday with “ordonnance,” Opal was able to advance to the semifinals by spelling correctly spelling “pointillistic” in the quarterfinals. But she was not able to get past the sixth round.

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Opal said that she competed in her first spelling bee just this year. She said she was nervous before her first competition, but has since found ways to make taking the stage a little easier.

“When I get nervous I just try to ignore all the people and just focus on the word and the judge and my parents I think,” she said.

From that first win in her class spelling bee in Chandler earlier this year, she went on to the district, the regional and, finally, the Arizona state spelling bee where she finished second behind Karen, securing her spot at the national bee.

Karen said she had been studying up to three hours every day since December in preparation. Now that her spelling bee days are behind her – eighth grade is the cutoff – Karen said she hopes to focus on academics to pursue her dream of being a doctor, but not before taking a well-deserved break.

While leaving the competition was a bittersweet experience for Karen, the Marana Middle Schooler said she is excited to have more free time and the chance to visit all the monuments and museums Washington has to offer before she heads home to Arizona this weekend.

“It felt kind of nerve-wracking, I obviously didn’t get it right, but I’m glad now cause I’m kind of relieved that I don’t have to go to the next round,” she said of the finals scheduled for Thursday night. “Even though it’s kind of a bummer, it’s a relief that I don’t have to study or do anything.”

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.

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.