By Benjamin Bullard
The Cullman Times
WEST POINT —
Movies have been made about the kind of poise kids who spell — competitively — must possess.
Winning the Cullman County spelling bee Monday evening required more than a little bit of grace under pressure from West Point Middle School student Candra Cornelius. Representing Cullman County next month at the state spelling bee in Shelby County will likely require more still.
But if staying focused under the bright lights can affect the outcome of any academic competition in which the 13-year-old Cornelius is involved, the teachers who’ve watched her come this far — not only as a speller, but as an all-around good student — are confident she’ll do just fine.
“You could tell it wasn’t her first ‘rodeo’ last night,” said Terry Michael, West Point Middle School English teacher (and Cornelius’ sponsor), Tuesday afternoon. “She was very poised and collected. She’s won the school spelling bee here the past two years, and her experience paid off.”
Cornelius, who went round after round at Fairview High School Monday with eventual first runner-up and Cullman Middle School 8th grader Anna Avery, confirmed that spelling bees can be stressful affairs — but the ability to concentrate when all eyes are turned your way can make a big difference.
“Yeah, it is kind of tense,” said Cornelius. “You just don’t know if you’re gonna miss the word first, or if the other person will.”
“But she took her time, and she didn’t panic,” Michael added. “There were a couple of words she wasn’t familiar with, but she paused to ask the right questions, and she was able to get a pretty good clue about the language origin of the word. So she never was having to just guess.”
Oh, and it helps to prepare. There’s studying — lots and lots of studying. Cornelius pored over word packets issued by Scripps, the national spelling bee’s annual sponsor. Candra and her mother, Susan, teamed up to practice the familiar call-and-response game, with Susan announcing words and Candra, of course, spelling them out.
Funny thing is, a spelling bee takes on a rhythm no student can anticipate. The word that won Cornelius the spelling bee — ‘enthusiasm‘ — wasn’t even the one that challenged her the most.
“No, that word was easy,” she said. “The only one I really had trouble with was ‘syntax.’ I was pretty sure I knew how to spell that, but still, ‘enthusiasm’ was easy compared to some of the hard words in the packet that I had studied.”
Even though competitive spelling can be as nail-biting an affair as any athletic pursuit, Cornelius said the local students who participate keep things amiable, win or lose.
“My best friend, Kaitlin Harding, was the runner up with me in the [West Point] spelling bee last year and this year,” she said. “There wasn’t any tension with us, or anything like that. We’ve been best friends since kindergarten, and we both helped each other study.”
Cornelius does more than spell. She’s on the math team. She’ll soon try out for the West Point majorette team, carrying forward another competitive hobby; one she’s pursued for the past 10 years. She’s won beauty pageants.
In short, she’s well rounded.
That, said West Point Middle School principal Clark Farley, is one of the reasons Cornelius will be a great ambassador for local academics when she joins other Alabama spellers March 9 at the state spelling bee, to be held at Oak Mountain High School.
“These are good students, from all over the county and all over the state,” said Farley. “Candra is an excellent student here; she’s very involved in a lot of activities and she’s very well-mannered and always well behaved. I think she’s a great representative for Cullman County.”
Benjamin Bullard can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com or by telephone at 734-2131 ext. 270.