Quizzing 12-year-old Tuli Bennett-Bose on her list of spelling words is a humbling experience.
Just ask her father.
“Usually when we practice, I pronounce the word incorrectly,” said Michael Bennett, with a knowing smile. “She knows it, corrects me, and spells it.”
The Northwest D.C. seventh-grader modestly shrugs off the educated habit, smiling when asked about her spelling strength.
“I learn by a mix of everything: visually, hearing it, saying it and feeling it.”
On Tuesday, Tuli plans to use all of her skills - and perhaps call on a bit of good luck - as she starts three days of competition representing the District in the 2012 Scripps National Spelling Bee.
“I’m not really worrying about trying to win,” Tuli said. “It’s going to be fun.”
Tuli is set to face off against 277 other spellers at the national bee, vying for a $30,000 cash prize and, more importantly, the title.
The competition will be held at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center at National Harbor. The student-spellers hail from the 50 states, as well as the U.S. territories and such far-flung countries like Ghana, China, Japan and New Zealand.
The experience of the spellers ranges almost as broadly as the word choices. Some come from a legacy of national bee contestants, while others have spelling coaches. A few are repeat contenders themselves.
Tuli’s optimistic, and almost casual, approach to the cutthroat competition might seem surprising. But not everyone has her credentials.
Tuli speaks French, Spanish, Bengali and, of course, English - knowledge that she said helps in learning how to spell words.
“French helps with root words and spelling patterns,” Tuli said. “Spanish also helps with spelling patterns.”
Born in Tokyo - her father is fluent in Japanese - Tuli moved back to the District with her parents when she was 4 months old, and lived here until 2006, when the family moved to Paris for four years.
While there, Tuli entered a spelling bee - in English - hosted by an American library. It was her first bee, and she won.
“I’m amazed,” Mr. Bennett said, considering his daughter’s spelling history. “She took it on all by herself. I had no idea she had this talent.”
Tuli said she’s always been a good speller, though it doesn’t hurt to have an impressive memory either.
Earlier this year, Tuli’s school, Oyster-Adams Bilingual School, celebrated “Pi Day,” in recognition of the never-ending, never-repeating number.
Students were asked to memorize as many numbers as they could from a list of 100 digits.
Tuli went to the Internet, pulled up an additional 155 digits, and memorized them all.
“I learned them in four days,” Tuli said, though a few have slipped her memory after learning them so quickly.” I think memorizing digits is really easy.”
“It was freaky,” Tuli’s mother, Monica Bose, said with a laugh.
Aside from memorizing hundreds of digits, Tuli is very much a typical “tween.”
An avid reader, she’s a big fan of the Hunger Games books.
Tuli also knits clothes for her family, swims and recently learned that she enjoys camping, after she went on a trip with her classmates to Pennsylvania.
In school, Tuli is considered a very good, but very quiet student.
“Of course, she answers every question she’s asked, and she always does extra work,” said Paul Gerber, an English teacher at Oyster-Adams. “She’ll fill in blank spaces with illustrations.”
The spelling champion has never been the District’s representative, but Oyster-Adams has sent a handful of spellers to the national round.
According to Carrie Roling, the spelling bee coordinator at Oyster-Adams, because of a hitch in the levels of competition before the national bee, a student can only represent the District once at that level.
“If I could change one thing about it, I would add another level of competition or combine with a competition in Maryland or Virginia,” she said. “It’s unfair. I would love to see Tuli come back again.”
In fact, this is Tuli’s second attempt at getting to the national championship, but last year she placed second at the D.C. bee.
“The second time, I thought maybe if I worked hard, this year I would actually try to win,” Tuli said.
Tuli has been studying regularly since she won her school’s bee, drawing from study sheets provided by the national bee, as well as the massive Merriam-Webster dictionary that sits in the middle of her living room table.
Like many of the spellers, Tuli said she has her own routine for spelling a word. She considers the language of origin and definition and sometimes writes the word out on her hand or in the air.
“We’re big book people. We love words and books,” Mrs. Bose said, calling Tuli’s visit to the national stage “a culmination of her love of words.”
“She’s a shy girl and it’s really exciting to see her get up on stage and not be nervous. It’s a great thing,” she said. “She’s growing up.”
Looking ahead at the next few days, Tuli said she has mixed feelings about her one shot at spelling glory.
“Sometimes I just want to get it over with, but sometimes I want to be able to try again.”
Even if she doesn’t win, there’s still a chance a Bennett-Rose could take the title in a few years.
In between bounding and skipping about the house last week, Tuli’s 7-year-old sister, Koli, proudly announced that she’d never scored lower than a nine out of 10 on her spelling tests.
Over the weekend, she also joined a spelling practice session with her sister.
The word she spelled correctly?