WESTERN SPRINGS – “Dead burd awurt! Dead burd awurt!”
Alia Abiad was trying to tell her parents she found a dead bird in the backyard. She couldn’t yet pronounce her r’s, and the words came out like baby-talk. So Abiad spelled out her message: “D-E-A-D. B-I-R-D. A-L-E-R-T!”
Eventually, Abiad got her r’s right, but she never had issues spelling. This year, the McClure Junior High seventh-grader spelled herself all the way to Washington D.C., where she reached the semifinals of the nationally-televised Scripps National Spelling Bee May 28 to 30.
After correctly spelling peccadillo (a slight offense), quiddity (whatever makes something the type that it is) and hypnopompic (associated with the semiconsciousness preceding walking), Abiad misspelled isopiestic (of equal pressure) in the sixth round, using a y instead of the middle i. But she was one of 42 spellers (out of a total 281) to make it that far.
“It was a good experience because everyone was really nice and not competitive or cutthroat,” Abiad said. “I didn’t think I’d get that far.”
ComEd sponsored Abiad and paid for her family’s trip to D.C., which included a lineup of activities for spellers such as a Memorial Day barbecue and sightseeing tours.
After qualifying for the national competition in February, Abiad studied for about an hour a day during the week and longer on weekends to prepare for the bee. She looked up words on a CD-ROM dictionary and played spelling games with her parents, both doctors who can keep up with their daughter in spelling, if not reading.
By fifth grade, Abiad was gulping down words faster than her parents. The family, all tennis players, decided to simultaneously read tennis star Andre Agassi’s biography “Open,” which contained anecdotes from Agassi’s younger, wilder years.
“We wanted to make sure we read it first to make sure there wasn’t anything inappropriate,” Lorraine Abiad said.
They couldn’t. Their daughter, who has since welcomed the invention of e-readers because she doesn’t have to share a book, read too fast.
Abiad has turned into a true abecedarian, which she can define for you (it means one who is learning the rudiments of something, like a language). She enjoys learning how words are put together in different languages, unless they’re Welsh or Italian. The Welsh word for a particular Irish drum, which is pronounced like the chemical element boron is, somehow, spelled bodhran.
In English, Abiad’s writing is consistently free of spelling errors, said Katie Hoffman, her language arts teacher.
“Maybe it’s because I’m getting older or seeing a lot of bad spelling, but I would put her spelling skills above mine,” Hoffman said.
Abiad estimates she learned about 7,000 words in training for the bees. Leading up to the national competition, Homer and Lorraine Abiad used any car ride to quiz Abiad on a batch of words, taking advantage of scarce down time. Aside from spelling, Abiad practices tennis three times a week and plays the violin with the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra on Saturday mornings.
“We made a point early on to say she’ll work hard for this, but life goes on,” Homer Abiad said.
Like her parents, Abiad is laid back. She has a contagious, buck-teeth smile and a soft-pitched voice, which her parents often struggled to make out. That changed, though, when Abiad got on the stage during spelling bees.
“But there, at the bee, oh my gosh, she’s spelling loudly, with confidence,” Lorraine Abiad said. “’Is this my daughter?’”
What’s the difference?
“I think I’m just afraid that someone’s going to interpret me wrong,” Abiad said.
Now she’s one of the country’s best spellers.