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Life with the bee: Salisbury spelling winner to go to national competition

By Rebecca Rider

rebecca.rider@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — For the past several years, 14-year-old Gabrielle Brown’s world has revolved around words.

Vocabulary lists are scribbled on whiteboards in the upstairs schoolroom of her home, taped to her bathroom mirror and filed in plastic notebooks on the shelves.

She and her mother, Tammy Brown, have spent countless hours trying to learn any word that could possibly be tossed out by a judge during local spelling bee competitions — from the most obvious, like “occasionally,” to foreign words like “vichyssoise.”

And this year, all that work paid off. On Sunday, the Salisbury native cleared the field at the Winston-Salem Journal’s Regional Spelling Bee, securing herself a spot in the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C.

The winning word was “roturier,” one of the more difficult ones in the eight-round competition, Gabrielle said. But as soon as she heard it, she knew she would win.

“I was so excited I couldn’t think for a bit,” she said.

She tried to stay calm and fired off each letter. When she was declared the winner, Gabrielle said, she looked over and saw her father, William Brown, hopping the barrier between the audience and the stage.

“He picked me up and twirled me around, and it was super sweet,” she said.

Her mother, she said, was in tears — and so was Gabrielle. It’s a dream that’s been years in the making.

Gabrielle said she first became interested in spelling bees when she was 6 after she and her father went to see a competition. At the time, however, the Rowan County Homeschool Association, to which Gabrielle belonged, wasn’t holding a bee, and there was no local competition she could participate in.

That changed when she was 11, and there was finally enough interest to start a local home-school bee again. Gabrielle said she found a software program that would read out the official Scripps list for that year and spent about three hours each day studying.

“I didn’t do anything else,” she said.

“This was kind of just something she latched onto and prepared for herself,” said Tammy Brown.

Gabrielle made it to the regionals that year. And the year after that, and after that. Last year, she was the regional runner-up. Brown said Gabrielle left that competition fired up and determined to make it to the national bee. The next day, the two started planning.

“I knew I couldn’t win on accident,” Gabrielle said, “so I had to be very purposeful about studying.”

They started by reading out lists of words to determine which ones Gabrielle did know — starting with simpler words and cycling up to more difficult ones.

“A lot of times, the easiest words are the hardest ones because you don’t think about having to know them,” Gabrielle said.

It’s how she discovered that she couldn’t confidently spell “refrigerator.”

From there, they moved to the official Scripps lists, then to the bee-approved Webster’s International Dictionary. The dictionary has 450,000 words, all of which are fair game once judges have gone through the official list.

“They can ask anything in that dictionary, and you have no idea,” Brown said.

In an eight- or nine-round bee, the judges must stick to the official word list for three rounds and pull the rest from the dictionary.

“So it’s one by one,” Brown said.

When asked if there were any words she would dread getting in a bee, Gabrielle laughed and gave an immediate answer: “Gesundheit.”

Gabrielle’s study lists are grouped by category — animals, sports terminology, medical terms — to help her learn them. But when it comes to competition, she never knows what the judges will call — so she has to prepare for everything.

“There’s a lot of luck that has to go into a bee as well,” her mother said.

“Or providence,” father William Brown added. ”One or the other.”

At first, Gabrielle studied for a couple of hours a day. But by the time bee season rolled around, she and her mother were spending as much as six hours daily running through word lists; learning spelling rules for Latin, German and French; learning Greek and Latin roots; and brushing up on her vocabulary.

It means that Gabrielle, and her family, have had to make a few sacrifices. Gabrielle cut back on extracurricular activities, though she has stayed involved in the Salisbury Symphony’s Afterschool Strings program, in which she plays violin, as well as the home-school chorus and her church’s youth worship band.

“So we didn’t let the music go,” Tammy Brown said.

But other things have been put on hold, such as auditioning to be in a production at Norvell Theater — another dream of Gabrielle’s.

For most people, competitive spelling isn’t on the radar except for a few days out of the year during the national bee. But for the Browns, it’s a big part of life. In the past year and a half, Tammy said, she and Gabrielle — as well as the other members of the family — have spent every day except Sundays working on spelling.

“It’s a celebration for all of us,” Brown said of Gabrielle heading to the national bee.

This is Gabrielle’s last year in the bee, as students aren’t eligible past eighth grade. Now that she’s achieved her dream of making it to the national stage, she holds a modest goal of making it to the semifinals — which would place her in the top 50 spellers.

Next year, she’ll take up other hobbies. She plans to participate in the home-school group’s mock trial team and to try out for a part at Norvell Theater. But for the next few months, at least, she’ll be busy with the bee.

“I’m looking forward to moving on, but I’m not done yet,” she said.

The Scripps National Spelling Bee begins in Washington on May 31.

Contact reporter Rebecca Rider at 704-797-4264. 

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