Photo by Alysa Landry
Hannah Pengosro, 12, studies every day for the Scripps National Spelling Bee, which she will be competing in next month.

Navajo Nation Sending Top Speller to National Bee

Alysa Landry

Every day, Hannah Pengosro pulls four random words from the dictionary and writes them on homemade flashcards.

She uses the cards to learn the etymology of the words—their language of origin, part of speech, pronunciation and spelling. Pengosro, 12, hopes that mastering four words at a time will increase her odds at the Scripps National Spelling Bee next month.

There, pitted against the top young spellers in the country, Pengosro will tackle words most adults can’t spell—and in front of hundreds of thousands of spectators. The 76th annual spelling bee runs May 25 and 26 at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center, a swank venue on the shores of Maryland’s National Harbor; it also is broadcast live on ESPN.

America’s largest and most prestigious spelling bee combines children ages 8 to 15 with a brand of competitive intellectualism rarely seen elsewhere. The best spellers from all 50 states, nine foreign nations and various Department of Defense schools in Europe will compete for a chance at $30,000 in cash, a $2,500 savings bond and $1,200 in reference works from Encyclopedia Britannica, not to mention the coveted title of champion speller.

“It’s scary to think about it,” Pengosro said. “I’m expecting hundreds of other kids who have done the same things I have to get there, so I have to be ready. I have to put in a lot of hard work and dedication.”

A transplant to Newcomb, New Mexico, from the Philippines, Pengosro already emerged as the Navajo Nation’s top speller. The sixth-grader took first place in spelling bees at Newcomb Middle School, the Northern Navajo Agency and finally the Navajo Nation as a whole. She was named winner of the Navajo Spelling Bee in March after 39 grueling rounds when she correctly spelled antipasto.

An aspiring attorney, Pengosro combs through the dictionary daily, on the lookout for tricky words. Although Scripps issues an official word list every fall, words during the final rounds of the national competition are taken straight from Merriam Webster.

“I have to be ready,” Pengosro said. “At the national bee, they probably just get a dictionary and pick a page, and then pick a word. So I have to watch out for those weird ones.”

Every year, Scripps releases data on the nearly 300 spellers that make their way to the national bee. Many are repeat contestants, with some returning as many as five times. Roughly one-tenth of spellers have a first language that is something other than English.

But none of the statistics matter once the contestants get to the stage, Paige Kimball, the bee’s executive director, told ICTMN. Kimball, who won the 1981 bee with the word sarcophagus, said the national platform gives all spellers the chance to shine.

“We have children from many, many different walks of life—some very privileged walks of life and some not at all,” she said. “One of the most touching aspects of our work is to be able to bring these children who ordinarily do not have aspects of privilege in their lives to this event so they can get the recognition they deserve and be inspired to do more in life.”

Regardless of how Pengosro does at the national competition, she has already put Newcomb on the map, said Ethel M. Manuelito, principal of Newcomb Middle School.

“She set this goal and she’s attaining it,” Manuelito said of Pengosro. “She’s making her school famous. It would be beyond awesome if she came home a national winner.”

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