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On her word


Sixth-grader reflects on experiences at Scripps National Spelling Bee

In round three of the 2013 Scripps National Spelling Bee on Friday, Divya Amirtharaj wasn’t thrown a bit when asked to complete a sentence defining the word “ogival.”

“I knew it meant a pointed arch,” she said on Monday of the word pronounced oh-jive-al.

The descriptive definitions put before her, however, included “bullet” and “horn.” The judges didn’t specify the type of the latter, but Divya felt that image came closest to the Merriam-Webster definition most familiar to her.by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - Divya Amirtharaj represented Oregon in the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

“I was pretty confident with that answer. I asked if it was a musical horn or an animal’s horn, but (judges) aren’t allowed to answer any questions,” she said. “So I went with ‘horn.’”

Unfortunately, her decision put a bullet on her momentum in the Washington D.C., bee, and the Meadow Park Middle School sixth-grader — who earlier sailed through spelling “pickelhaube” correctly in the second round and “Botticellian” in round three — was unable to move on to round four and the contest semifinals.

She was far from alone. Only 42 of the 281 bee participants made it to Friday’s semifinals and final rounds, from which 13-year-old Arvind Mahankali of Bayside Hills, N.Y., emerged victorious. Divya tied at 43rd with other spellers shut out in round three.

By correctly spelling words such as “rapscallion” and “hegemonic,” the 11-year-old qualified in March for the annual Scripps competition by besting 55 Oregon students through 12 rounds in the Portland Tribune/Comcast Regional Spelling Bee. The regional bee invited fourth- through eighth-grade students attending Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas county public, private, alternative and home-school groups that win their individual school bees to compete at a regional level.

Given the amount of time she had to prepare, Divya said she was reasonably satisfied with her performance.

“First of all, it’a a lot more extravagant,” she said of the national event. “The competition is really tough. Most kids prepare for years at a time. I had only three months, at most. It was a shock to see how good these kids are at spelling.”

The pomp and circumstance of the Scripps competition, which was televised on the ESPN network, had a mixed effect on her state of mind.

“I guess it makes it harder to concentrate when you’re on stage, with the bright lights and all the people,” she said. “But it kind of focuses you because you’re in ‘the zone.’”

Jill Weisensee, coordinator for the Tribune-Comcast bee, congratulated Divya for making it through the third round in a clearly tough competition.

“It’s a lot of pressure for those kids,” she said. “Words at that level are so much harder than at the regional level. The fact that she made it to the third round at nationals is impressive. She still has another year in which she can compete if she wins the regionals again. We’re very proud of her for making it as far as she did.”

Divya’s six days in the nation’s capital — accompanied by her father, Pattu, and her mother Subhadra Sampathkumaran both natives of southern India — included a welcoming barbecue and farewell banquet sandwiching tours of the city’s iconic monuments and museums.

“I really liked the Natural History Museum,” she noted, along with the National Museum of American History. “There’s a picture there of the 2011 national spelling bee champion, so that was cool.”

In addition to her all expenses-paid trip to Washington for the annual Scripps bee, Divya’s way with words won her a $100 American Express gift certificate from Comcast, a Webster’s Third New International Dictionary and a one-year subscription to the Encyclopedia Britannica Online Student Edition.

Pattu Amirtharaj said his daughter enjoyed the camaraderie of other spelling whizzes from around the country.

“She was thrilled at this opportunity,” he said. “Though she did not go far in this year’s competition, she truly had fun, made some great friends and will never forget this great experience.”

Expressing her gratitude to the Portland Tribune and Comcast for making her journey possible, Divya sees her first Scripps competition was a learning experience from which she plans to build her vocabulary arsenal.

“It was a great experience, especially for the preparation for future bees,” she said.

Returning to her sixth-grade class at Meadow Park on Monday morning, Divya received warm greetings from fellow students and teachers who eagerly watched her poised performance on ESPN.

“They were following my progress every day, so when I came back, everybody already knew what happened,” she said.

The glory, however, didn’t last too long.

“I got a lot of congratulations. (Teachers) were just glad to see me — and give me a lot of homework.”