Mother Works To Keep Nation’s Youngest Speller Grounded

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I have an obsession with the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee. At my last newspaper, I used to demand that our televisions — normally tuned to cable news outlets — be switched over to ESPN during the spelling finals. And even though people rolled their eyes at me, they eventually got into it.

I was a speller back in the day (though never good enough to make it to regionals, much less nationals) and I love all of those spelling movies such as Spellbound and Akeelah and the Bee.

And each year, prior to the big meet, I research the contenders and pick out a few favorites. I even subcategorize things — favorite home schooler, favorite child of immigrants, favorite midwestern contender, weirdest technique, you name it. Even though I doubt she’ll make it far, this story definitely grabbed me. Six-year-old Lori Anne Madison is the youngest person ever to qualify for the National Spelling Bee in its 87-year history.

When we’re introduced to her, she’s wearing a green “Little Miss Sunshine” shirt and is hunting for “snails, slugs, tadpoles, water striders, baby snakes and more” outside Washington, D.C. She’s won major awards in swimming and math, too. Her mother Sorina seems in awe of the whole thing:

There’s been no need for Lori Anne’s parents to push her to do anything – because she’s already way out in front dragging them along. Some kids are ahead of the curve physically, mentally or socially from a very young age. Lori Anne is the rare exception who defies the norms in every category.

She hit all her milestones early, walking and talking well before others in her playgroup. She was reading before she was 2. She swims four times a week, keeping pace with 10-year-old boys, and wants to be in the Olympics. When her mother tried to enroll her in a private school for the gifted, the headmaster said Lori Anne was just way too smart to accommodate and needed to be home-schooled.

“Once she started reading, that’s when people started looking strange at us, in libraries, everywhere, she’s actually fluently reading at 2, and at 2 1/2 she was reading chapter books,” Sorina said. That meant an unexpected lifestyle change for the mother, a college professor who teaches health-related courses. Lori Anne now studies at home, mastering topics other kids her age won’t touch for several years. She wants to be an astrobiologist, a combination of her two favorite subjects, astronomy and biology.

And she talks soooo fast, with well-formed diction and a touch of know-it-all confidence – just like a teenager.

“She out-argues both of us, and my husband is a trial lawyer,” Sorina said with a laugh.

I did well in school but have a brother who was reading before the age of 2. My parents told us that they almost had to keep it a secret because people didn’t know how to respond. No teacher wanted to deal with him and after he skipped two grades, my parents insisted that enough was enough — they wanted him to be close to his age group for sports and other activities.

Lori Anne’s parents seem to handling things in a similarly sensible manner, given what they’re dealing with. They’re working hard to avoid the media spotlight and it seems to be working. For instance, a reporter was allowed to hang out on this tadpole fishing trip but they’ve declined many broadcast television requests. In Spellbound, there are all these kids whose parents react to them differently. One kid’s parents seem as typical as can be and when they’re asked what they think of their master speller they’ll all, “We have no idea what to think of him,” suggesting they view him as a mystery. Since their love for their child is clear, it’s a rather endearing situation. Other parents are drilling their kids with word after word throughout the day. This family seems to split it down the middle.

While many spellers have complicated methods for practicing their words, Lori Anne practices hers while jumping on a trampoline (Sorina calls out the words):

“She doesn’t sit at a table for hours to study anything. I mean, she’s 6,” Sorina said with laugh. “She’s still a 6-year-old and we want to allow her to be a 6-year-old.”

I always wonder how I’d handle things if I had a child who developed an interest in some type of academic or sports competition — how much would I be there shouting out words or formulas while she jumped on a trampoline? Would I be taking her to swim practice every morning at 4:30 AM? The answer is “no.” I wouldn’t. I’m just not that kind of mother. But God bless the Sorina Madisons and parents of preternaturally gifted children everywhere. I salute you!