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Home-schooled Clinton teen competes in national s-p-e-l-l-i-n-g bee

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Published on: Wednesday, June 05, 2013

By Tauren Dyson

By now, the world has heard that Arvind Mahankali won the 86th Scripps Spelling Bee last Thursday at National Harbor.

The three-day event culminated as he spelled the word “knaidel,” a German word for “dumpling,” after which he hoisted a shiny gold trophy above his head and collected a $30,000 check and $2,500 U.S. saving bond in his pocket. He topped 280 other spellers for that honor.

One of them was Gabriela Rodriguez. The last word she spelled, after tracing it imaginarily on her left forearm last Wednesday was “jejunely,” meaning “devoid of significance or interest.” But for the 13-year-old Clinton native, her time at the bee was anything but jejunely.

Beyond a trophy or money, competing in the bee instilled Gabriela a sense of pride that will always be a significant interest in her life.

“I have a lot more discipline in doing things I should do and giving up frivolous things that aren’t that important,” Gabriela said. “This has helped me to plan ahead.”

For many of the other spellers, including three of the four finalists, their third year of competition in the Scripps Bee gave them an edge in experience. Gabriela — the lone representative from Prince George’s — used her first experience at the bee to build confidence that pushed her all the way to the third round.

Now Gabriela’s mother hopes that the lessons learned from the experience will help push her to success in life.

“A good friend told her, ‘Gabriela, you can use this for your SAT words,’” said Sylvia Garcia-Rodriguez. “Another friend said, ‘This represents a lot of patience and dedication,’ because she had to put aside a lot of fun things in order to study.”

Something else Gabriela managed to displace was first-time nervousness. Other spellers had multiple Scripps appearances to hang their confidence on and were eager to shine under the lights and in front of the camera — three of the four finalists had visited the Scripps Bee three years straight. Still, amid other fidgety, sweaty, and in some cases, hyperventilating spellers on stage, Gabriela remained calm.

She owes much of her confident approach to her Clinton neighbor Evelyn Burch, a 2011 Scripps Spelling Bee entrant, who tutored Gabriela. Burch developed a training regime consisting of four-hour sessions that included learning Greek and Latin root words and taking online practice spelling quizzes. Now Burch wants Gabriela to take that same work ethic and extend it beyond the spelling bee. 

“I think this is definitely a life-changing experience,” said Burch, 16. “It will really shape her life.”

This is an experience Gabriela almost never felt. Two years ago, Prince George’s didn’t allow home-schooled children into the county bee. That’s when her mother helped form the Accokeek Center for Homeschooling Support.

“We began with only four kids,” Rodriguez said.

Two years later that group grew to 24 children, and Gabriela won its bee, carrying on her momentum to then take the Prince George’s County Spelling Bee.

At the Scripps Bee, Gabriela’s impetus was halted, after she finished her third round computer test with 28 points, only three shy of the 31 needed to advance to the next day’s semi-finals. Yet, for those who know and love Gabriela, they feel her mere presence at the Scripps Bee alone is a significant enough achievement to celebrate.

“She had a goal that she wanted to achieve something great,” said, Gabriela’s mother. “She was able to represent the home school community and the Prince George’s County students in a good way.”

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