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'Sophoclean' is hardly Greek to returning spelling champ

Meadow Park's Divya Amirtharaj sets sights on national bee


by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Divya Amirtharaj displays her award for winning the 2014 Portland Tribune/Comcast Regional Spelling Bee on Saturday at the Hollywood Theatre in Northeast Portland. It was the second consecutive year she won the regional bee.Preparing for this year’s Portland Tribune/Comcast Regional Spelling Bee, Divya Amirtharaj invested considerable time and effort learning how to break down words and derive spellings from their roots.

In the case of “sophoclean,” one of two words that sealed her success as a returning champion, all she had to do was think back to her humanities class at Meadow Park Middle School.

“When they called out ‘sophoclean,’ I felt really good,” she says of the word meaning of or related to Greek dramatist Sophocles. “In our Greece unit, at the beginning of the year, we spent time on the philosophers Sophocles and Aristotle. We talked about Sophocles and his philosophy, what he taught.”

That recent knowledge, coupled with her find-the-root technique for the final word of “armamentarium” — the word for medicine, equipment and techniques available to a medical practitioner — led Amirtharaj to champion status on Saturday at the Hollywood Theatre in Northeast Portland.

At the end of 16 rounds, the seventh-grader became only the fourth repeat champion in the bee’s 10-year history.

“It sounded right to me,” she says of “armamentarium.” “Putting together all those roots and connective words, I thought it should have been right. But I still had to wait and see if the judges agreed with me.”

Amirtharaj, 12, wasn’t the only participant to reclaim her position from 2013. This year’s runner-up, 10-year-old Umbre Khan of the Islamic School of the Muslim Education Trust in Tigard, also came in second to Amirtharaj in the 2013 bee.

This year’s event featured more than 50 students from the region. The bee saw eight spellers last into later rounds, with four of them heading into the 12th round. Khan and Amirtharaj went head-to-head for two rounds before Khan bowed out on the word “burgoo,” a word for a typically spicy stew or thick soup.

Amirtharaj’s performance sends her to the 2014 Scripps National Spelling Bee, held from May 25 to 31 in National Harbor, Md., near Washington, D.C. At last year’s national bee in Washington, Amirtharaj bowed out in round three of the 16-round tournament.

Based on her extra preparation and the confidence that comes from two regional wins, Amirtharaj set a goal of reaching the semifinals this year.

“I’m continuing to work on (word) roots, and study more, basically,” she says.

Amirtharaj started preparing for this year’s bee at the outset of the 2013-14 school year. Working with her mother Subha, father Pattu and Mark Wandell, her Summa humanities teacher at Meadow Park, she gradually built up her prep time to one to two hours each weekday and four hours on Saturdays and Sundays.

“My mom and dad mainly helped with learning words and practicing spelling them,” she says. “Mr. Wandell helped me learn about roots and words — how they’re constructed. That helped me figure them out even if I haven’t studied the word.

“I can look at words that seem to be really complicated before,” she explains. “Now I can break them down and see what they mean before I get their spellings. It’s really cool.”

The more methodical approach contrasts with last year’s competition, when she relied more on memory and visual recognition.

“Last year I was a little short on time. I didn’t have time to go through full words and how they’re constructed. I just memorized and learned them. This year I had enough time to learn how to make a word,” she says.

When the bee rolled around, Amirtharaj had audience support from her parents as well as her maternal grandfather Sampadh Kumaran, who traveled from his southern India home of Chennai to Portland for the competition.

“He had just landed here in the U.S. two days prior to the bee,” says Subha Amirtharaj of her 74-year-old father. “He was very excited to be there and watch her spell.”

Watching her daughter at this year’s bee proved a little more stressful this year.

“I believe she wanted to defend her title,” Subha says, “so there was much more pressure than last year.”

She admits giving Divya a bit of a reality check last fall as they started preparations for the regional bee.

“She had an advantage to many other kids because she had been to the national bee, and she put in a lot more effort than (some) kids at their very first bee,” she says. “I told her, ‘Given all those factors, you do have an advantage, but it won’t matter if you don’t put in the effort.’ So she did put in the effort.”

Admitting it’s going to be a challenge to balance preparation for the national bee with her regular schoolwork, Amirtharaj is nonetheless eager to return to the big league competition stage.

“The national bee was a lot of fun for me,” she says. “I would like to do it again.”by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Divya Amirtharaj, center, became only the fourth repeat champion in 10 years of the Portland Tribune/Comcast Regional Spelling Bee on Saturday at the Hollywood Theatre in Northeast Portland.

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