LEBANON • Of course, she gets just a little nervous waiting to find out which word officials at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Spelling Bee will throw at her, Alice Liu admits.
But Liu is a pro. She’s been through the St. Louis bee before and into the late rounds of the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington.
She makes sure she’s thinking of the same word the judges are saying before she visualizes it, ticking through the questions she’s allowed to ask judges: definition, use in a sentence, word origin, pronunciation. Most important, she said: “Stay calm.”
The Crestview Middle School sixth-grader’s discipline paid off again Saturday. She bested 49 other finalists, the tops among some 60,000 entrants from public, private, parochial, home and charter schools around the metro area, at the regional spelling bee held at McKendree University in Lebanon.
“I’m really happy about it,” the beaming 11-year-old, holding her second regional trophy, said after the three-hour bee Saturday afternoon.
Alice, of Chesterfield, was the local champion last year and went on to represent St. Louis in the Scripps National Spelling Bee in May. There, she was the youngest competitor in the finals, the fourth of the last 15 spellers eliminated.
She’ll have another shot this year.
“She’s a really self-motivated child,” said her mother, Ping Wang.
Alice made sure to thank her parents for the time they spend quizzing her on words. But Wang said it’s Alice who has decided to put in the effort and made herself an effective speller. That’s not something that can be forced by parents, she said.
It’s the thrill of the bee that draws Alice. The nerves while you’re waiting for a word. The relief when you nail the letters. “The roller coaster of emotion,” she said.
It was “alcheringa” in the 11th round that gave Alice the win Saturday. The Australian aboriginal word denotes the beginning of time when the first ancestors were created, or literally, “dream time.”
Longtime spelling bee judge Jan Shayne said she saw the light go on over Alice’s head when she got that one.
“I could just see she remembered that word from somewhere and knew how to spell it,” said Shayne, a retired teacher from the Parkway School District.
“I’m not sure where I’ve seen it, but I know I’ve seen it before,” Alice said.
Alice and other spellers make memorizing the most exotic words in the dictionary look easy. Beyond obscure anthropology terms, she nailed a little-known historical one (“khedive,” the title of the viceroy of Egypt under Turkish rule in the late 19th and early 20th centuries) and a scientific one (“gibberella,” a plant fungus known for infecting rice).
Between other activities and homework, Alice tries to squeeze in some spelling practice most days.
“I don’t really count how many hours I do,” she said. “I try to do some every day.”
It’s not just the spellers who spend hours studying up. The judges need to make sure they have learned all the words that might be used in the competition.
“You owe it to the kids to have it pronounced perfectly,” Shayne said.