Divya Amirtharaj advances to national bee in Washington, D.C.

by: TIMES PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Umbre Khan, left, from the Islamic School of the Muslim Education Trust in Tigard and Divya Amirtharaj of Meadow Park Middle School are excited as they head in to the final round of the ninth annual Portland Tribune/Comcast Regional Spelling Bee.Divya Amirtharaj considers herself an avid reader.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t words her 11-year-old eyes haven’t absorbed in school textbooks or the science-fiction novels and mysteries she absorbs away from the classroom.

At the end of the final round of the Portland Tribune/Comcast Regional Spelling Bee on Saturday, “rapscallion” was one of them.

“’Hegemonic,’ I’d read in a book, so it wasn’t that surprising,” the Beaverton resident said of the final word — meaning politically or socially dominant — she was asked to spell. “When I was standing there waiting on them to tell me if it was right or wrong, I almost had a heart attack. But ‘rapscallion,’ I had no idea about the word, so it was really nerve-racking standing there.”

Going by her gut, along with hearing the definition and derivation of the word the judges provided, Divya pulled it off, spelling the word — meaning “rascal” or “rogue” — correctly. And with those two nail-biters behind her, the Meadow Park Middle School sixth-grader won the ninth annual spelling bee at the Hollywood Theatre.

Way with words

Divya topped 55 other spellers during the contest. Umbre Khan, a 9-year-old student from the Islamic School of the Muslim Education Trust in Tigard, reached runner-up status after misspelling “cabaret” in the 12th and final round of the three-hour event.

Divya’s way with words won her a $100 American Express gift certificate from Comcast, a Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, a one-year subscription to the Encyclopedia Britannica Online Student Edition and a one week, all expenses-paid trip to Washington, D.C., in late May to compete in the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee.

The Tribune/Comcast bee invites fourth- through eighth-grade students attending Washington, Multnomah and Clackamas county public, private, alternative and home school groups who win their individual school bees to compete at a regional level.

Launched by the Tribune in 2002 to give Portland-area students an opportunity to compete on a national level, the regional bee tests spellers on words from the 2013 Pronouncer Guide, the official word list provided by Scripps National Spelling Bee. Colin Fogarty, editor of Northwest News Network and a contributing reporter to Oregon Public Broadcasting radio, serves as the bee’s official TIMES PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Divya Amirtharaj correctly spelled 'rapscallion' and 'hegemonic' to win the ninth annual Portland Tribune/Comcast Regional Spelling Bee Saturday at the Hollywood Theatre.

Seasoned competitor

Competing in spelling competitions since she was in second grade, Divya said her experience did little to spare her nerves as she remained in play well after she assumed she’d uttered her last correct letter.

“My first few words were quite simple, I thought. It went at a pretty fast speed,” she said, noting each speller has one minute to spell the word correctly. “As it went on, I slowed down so much it took most of my minute.”

The first nine rounds, she explained, were derived from a spelling list she studied beforehand.

“It was really fun and nerve-racking at the same time. I felt really good going into the ninth round, but in the 10th round, I didn’t know them. I kind of guessed on the 10th round. I was pretty surprised I was still there,” she said.

A sharp memory

Melissa Kahn, mother of 9-year-old Umbre, said her daughter’s success likely has something to do with her impressive powers of recollection.

“She’s always had a good memory,” said Kahn, a popular romantic fiction writer who works under an assumed author’s name. “She’s been able to retain spelling patterns, math patterns. She remembers everything she sees. I knew she was good at spelling, but I didn’t realize she would go this far in the competition.”

Backed by a sponsorship from a local newspaper, more than 250 students from around the world compete in the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. For Divya, competing in the national bee will be something of a dream come true.

“I watched the national bee many times on TV,” she said, noting she’s already visited the nation’s capital twice. “It’s gonna be really cool to be in the spelling bee this year.”

With classmates offering their congratulations this week, Divya has plenty of incentive to represent her home state before a national audience.

“I’m going to do my best in D.C. to make Oregon proud.”

And what about “hegemonic” and “rapscallion?”

“I’ll never forget them,” she said.

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