Young hero has a way with words

May. 30, 2014 @ 07:13 PM

I couldn’t blame it on a bad pass, wet turf, sloppy handling or referee incompetence.

No, back in the 1970s, my sport was spelling.

When I failed, I only had myself to blame.

In 1976, I almost made it to the hallowed ranks of the top 10 spellers in Orlando. Almost. A missing “h” cost me a shot at the finals.

The word that tripped me up: Schizophrenia. I skipped the first “h,” probably because I was in such a hurry to get past the “z.” Just like that, eliminated from the regional competition.

I never made it as far as Bettie Closs, the fifth grader from Durham’s Little River Elementary School, who took a trip to Washington, D.C., this week for a chance at the national title. She was one of 14 students from North Carolina in the running and the only representative from Durham at the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

She’s a multi-talented child. She enjoys reading, gymnastics, chorus, computers and drawing. Loves deep-sea fishing. She likes to pedal through the woods and across the river to explore.

And, of course, she’s a top-flight speller.

In March, she capped a regional victory by correctly spelling the word “impunity.” This week, she didn’t make the semifinals. She made it through the third round, correctly spelling “candiru” and, for the vocabulary portion, she correctly defined “bariatrics” as a branch of medicine dealing with obesity.

In the end, two spellers from other states – Sriram Hathwar of New York and Ansun Sujoe of Texas -- shared the national title for the first time in 52 years.

Maybe she didn’t win, but Bettie’s got no call for regrets. Look how far she went, where her words took her, as she represented our hometown.

I wish I’d taken more time, more care, when I spelled my words at the regional competition in Orange County, Florida, so many years ago. For a kid to take on such a challenge in our nation’s capital at age 10 is just astonishing. She’s got her whole life ahead, but already I envy her.

As far as I’m concerned, she’s Durham’s C-H-A-M-P-I-O-N.

Wes Platt can be reached at or 919-419-6684. Follow on Twitter at @HS_WesPlatt. Connect on Facebook at