How do you spell 'winner?'

Fahmida Sarmin

How many 12-year-olds know the meaning of the word “glasnost”—let alone how to spell it? Fahmida Sarmin does. And when the 7th grader spelled it right on March 3 she won the 2007 Scripps Regional Spelling Bee, sponsored by the Philadelphia Tribune and Independence Blue Cross.

For her efforts, the Penn Alexander School student received a Dell computer, a savings bond, a Merriam-Webster New International Dictionary and an all-expenses-paid trip for her and an escort to the national competition in Washington, D.C., which takes place at the end of May.

“It was a nail biter,” recalls Penn Alexander Principal Sheila Sydnor of the regional competition. “The teachers had their heads down and it was like, ‘Come on, we know you know it.’ We were really glad she was able to pull it off.”

For Megan Wapner (front right in photo), a literacy teacher at the Penn assisted K-8 school, the victory is particularly sweet since this is the first year Penn Alexander has had a spelling bee. To qualify for the regional bee, Sarmin had to beat out her classmates in the school bee. Since she won the regional competition, those peers have been rallying around to support her, and quizzing her daily just for fun.

“I actually tell my friends I would feel more comfortable if they didn’t,” says Sarmin, though she confesses she gets a kick out of spelling the most difficult words they can throw at her. “Today,” she says, “my classmate gave me this word tetra-hydro-cannabinol. I spelled it right, but he actually spelled it wrong.”

To prepare for the nationals, Sarmin is spending her weekends studying word roots and rules and meeting after school for an hour every day with Wapner and literacy teacher Hilary Ehling.

In an impressive show of community support, the teachers have gotten together, says Wapner, to make index cards of frequently used spelling bee words—around 10,000 at last count. “Right now,” says Wapner, “we’re just going through and pulling out the ones she knows no problem. We have eight shoe boxes full.”

Sarmin’s gift for spelling is remarkable, says Wapner. “I’m always amazed by the amount of words Fahmida knows and is able to spell. We’re looking them up to find out if they’re Greek, or whatever… and she’s just spelling them. It’s definitely a talent.”

Excited as she is about her trip to Washington, Sarmin says her real loves are science and social studies. Earlier this month she walked away with a first prize in the George Washington Carver Science Fair co-sponsored by Temple University.

For Wapner, who says she’s “not a particularly good speller” herself, organizing the school bee and preparing Sarmin for the national bee has been a learning process. “We had a huge range of spellers in the bee,” she explains. “We had kids who wanted to be in it because they weren’t good spellers and it was a chance for them to learn, and we had kids it was natural for, so it was a nice combination and they were all able to learn.”

Now, she says, “It’s really neat to see how everyone’s really come behind Fahmida.” With two months to go before the national competition, Sarmin seems calm and focused. She doesn’t dream about words, she says, but she does admit that certain words get stuck in her head. “Many people have tunes in their head, but for me it’s words in my head.”

Originally published on March 29, 2007