A column for scrappy students

The Pride of Pickerington: Nicholas Rushlow, Spelling Whiz

We were thrilled to learn that sixth-grader Nicholas Rushlow of Pickerington, Ohio, who placed 17th in last spring's Scripps National Spelling Bee, is an avid user of the Visual Thesaurus. In fact, he used the Visual Thesaurus Spelling Bee as a training tool in preparing for the Nationals. And now as he gets ready to compete again during this school year, he's taking advantage of our new Community Spelling Bee feature to customize his practice lists. We caught up with Nicholas and his mother Michele Rushlow to find out what it takes to be one of the nation's top spellers.

VT: Let's start off with the basics. What school do you go to, Nicholas?

Nicholas: I go to Harmon Middle School in Pickerington.

VT: When did you start competing in spelling bees?

Nicholas: When I was in the fourth grade, I went to my first regional spelling bee. That was two years ago. One day at school, they told us all to get out a piece of paper and to number it from one to 50. We had no idea what we were doing. They just told us to try and spell the words we were given as best we could.

Mrs. R.: There were about 250 fourth graders in his elementary school that year, roughly.

Nicholas: And then a couple weeks later, they told us that was our spelling bee to compete to go to the Regionals. And I found out that I'd won.

Mrs. R.: So there wasn't really time to prepare. I know some of the parents at the National Bee, they started their kids when they were really little. But for him it was, "Here's paper. OK, you've won, you go to Regionals." I got him a book, the one from Scripps, How to Spell Like a Champ, because I didn't know anything about spelling bees.

Nicholas: So she brings home the book and I started to read it. I read about the National Spelling Bee and how it was held in Grand Hyatt, Washington, D.C. And we were planning to go to Washington D.C. over my spring break. I told my mom that I wanted to go to the Grand Hyatt while we were there to see that ballroom. And she asked why, and I said I wanted to be there someday at the National Bee.

Mrs. R.: This is the first he'd ever read about it in his life. And ironically, a month later, we go to the Regional Bee.

Nicholas: And I won.

Mrs. R.: He went, let's see, 25 rounds one-on-one. Seventeen of them were one-on-one with a kid about three years older than him.

VT: So you were able to go to Washington as a fourth grader two years ago to compete in the Nationals?

Nicholas: Yes. I did pretty well for a fourth grader. I didn't quite make the cutoff that year. I didn't make it past round three.

VT: But you got to go to the ballroom and you were able to live that dream in your very first year?

Nicholas: Yes.

Mrs. R.: He only had a couple months to prepare.

Nicholas: After I came back, the first thing I did is start studying again because I wanted to go back the next year, and I did.

VT: What kinds of things did you do to prepare when you were in fifth grade?

Nicholas: I studied any lists I could find.

Mrs. R.: You go by the New International Dictionary, primarily, researching etymologies. I make a lot of his lists for him because he can't sit there and look up every word or he'd never be able to study them. When he first started, he'd want to look at the list before I'd give him the words. But now as he's gotten more experienced...

Nicholas: Now I want to be prepared for what I'm going to get at the National Bee, so I don't want to look at my list before I get the words. I want to be able to figure them out and know them.

VT: If you know the etymology, the roots of the words, then you have a good chance of guessing or making a really good educated guess?

Nicholas: Yeah.

Mrs. R.: There's a half a million entries in the New International Dictionary, so you can't memorize them all.

Nicholas: It's pretty hard to learn them all, so you've got to figure out the tricks to spell them.

Mrs. R.: And I'll tell you, a year ago, I just Googled "spelling bee" and the Visual Thesaurus Spelling Bee showed up.

Nicholas: That has become a really valuable resource. It introduces me to tons of new words I've never heard of in my life.

Mrs. R.: You do the Bee, and as you're doing each word, when you get them right...

Nicholas: When I get them right, I'll write them down in my notebook and put a little star next to it. And if I don't get it, I put it on another little list of missed words.

VT: And now you use the Community Spelling Bee feature to make your own spelling bees with just the words that you missed?

Nicholas: That's right.

Mrs. R.: It's been great. And I'll tell you, today I made a bunch of lists for him, and I just make random lists out of all kinds of words.

VT: . So last spring at the National Bee, you got to be on the ESPN broadcast. What was that like? Were you nervous? Was it really exciting to be on national television?

Nicholas: Well, who wouldn't be excited being on national television? You don't want to psych yourself out, thinking, "Oh man, I'm on national television, I can't mess up." I wasn't particularly nervous. I just wanted to know what my next word is, if I can spell it or not. I was excited, not nervous.

VT: The word you went out on was hebdomadally [a word from Greek, via Latin, meaning "weekly"], spelling it hebdomitally.

Mrs. R.: As soon as he walked off the stage, he went, "Oh, hebdomad." He knew that word because he'd studied a lot of Latin and Greek, but when Dr. Bailey said hebdomadally, it didn't sound anything like the other words that he did know.

VT: It's tricky when there is that unstressed schwa sound. You never know how to spell that.

Nicholas: Yes, the dreaded schwa!

VT: You're in sixth grade now, so you have three more years to compete?

Nicholas: That's right.

Mrs. R.: That's what I keep telling him: no pressure because he's got three more years.

VT: What do you have to do to get the Nationals again?

Nicholas: First, you've got to win the classroom bee. Then you have the school bee. Next you go to Regionals and if you win that, you go on to Washington.

VT: While you've been studying with the Visual Thesaurus Spelling Bee and your other words lists, what are some of your favorite words that you've learned along the way?

Nicholas: Let me go look.

Mrs. R.: He's got a wall of words.

Nicholas: A wall of words, all over a wall filled with good words.

Nicholas: My favorite word is probably bhutatathata. It's Sanskrit, and it means "essence of suchness" in Buddhism.

VT: That's very profound. I think you'd have to study lots of Buddhism to understand what that one means.

Nicholas: I know. Then there's Boeotian. That's Greek, it means "marked by stupidity or Philistinism, crudely obtuse."

VT: It sounds like somebody didn't like the people from Boeotia.

Nicholas: Right, exactly.

VT: What are some of the tricky types of words that give you trouble?

Nicholas: I cannot stand the French words. It's like they have no rules whatsoever. They spell the "o" sound like eau, ot and probably fifty other different ways.

Mrs. R.: I speak a lot of French. My mother's from Paris, so it's kind of ironic because when they gave him the word noisette, we heard later that the ESPN guy said, "Oh, his mother speaks French, he should know this." 

Nicholas: Yeah, too bad she's not spelling.

Mrs. R.: His favorite words are probably German. He's got 2,000 German words that he can just rattle off fast as lightning.

VT: Finally, do you have any special rituals you do when you're competing?

Mrs. R.: Right before you do a spelling bee, what do you always say?

Nicholas: "See the Bee. Feel the Bee. Be the Bee!"

Click here to read more articles from Wunderkind.

Now you can create your own customized spelling bees from word lists.
Nicholas was among the select few to make it past the preliminary rounds last spring.
Our recap of the final round of the 2009 Scripps National Spelling Bee.
Beware of that spelling stumper, the dreaded schwa!