VERO BEACH — Seemingly mature beyond his years, the first St. Edward’s Middle School student to earn a trip to the Scripps National Spelling Bee doesn’t appear to be at all overwhelmed by the prospect of competing against America’s best and, if he reaches the semifinals, standing in front of ESPN2’s television cameras.
Oh, he’s excited.
Even a little nervous.
But Jonathan Buckley is confident, too – though when asked last week about spelling his way to Washington, DC., for next week’s national competition, the 14-year-old Moorings resident shrugged and said, “I’m not really a good speller.”
He was being modest: After out-spelling his eighth-grade challengers at St. Edward’s in December, then winning the school spelling bee in February, Buckley won the regional contest in March in Port St. Lucie, where he went 21 rounds before edging Gifford Middle School seventh grader Casey Turner.
“We used up all the words on the list,” said Buckley, who finished 12th in the 2013 regional spelling bee, “so they had go to off-list words.”
His winning word?
So after devoting what he described as “lots of hours” to his role as John Arable in the school’s production of “Charlotte’s Web” – in addition to his regular classwork, of course – Buckley has been spending lots of time the past couple of weeks studying for the national bee.
“He’s had a pretty full schedule lately, but his teachers are working with him to accommodate his needs,” said Scott Mohr, Buckley’s homeroom advisor. “This is a first for St. Edward’s, so it’s pretty special. Everybody in school knows about it, and everybody is rooting for him.”
Exactly how does Buckley prepare for a contest in which he’ll likely be asked to spell some words he has never seen nor heard?
It’s virtually impossible to memorize the dictionary’s 300,000 to 600,000 words and word forms, depending on the publisher, so he prefers to study online. He uses the various resources on the SpellingBee.com website.
He also works in the school’s Academic Learning Lab with Camille Green, who has found that he learns better when studying in short spurts. Therefore, he doesn’t have a consistent study schedule.
“Jonathan has a pretty bad case of ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), which should make doing this a lot more difficult, but it doesn’t,” said his mother, Irina Woelfle. “He seems to have a photographic memory. He can read something and, once he sets his eyes on it, he knows it. So he’s able to work smart, not hard.”
For those wondering: Woelfle said her son has “always been a good speller,” going all the way back to his pre-school years, learning to read children’s books before starting kindergarten.
Though he’s not a “voracious reader” now, she said, Buckley enjoys reading news magazines and the Wall Street Journal – so much so that he has developed an interest in history and politics, even asking her “about Benghazi.”
It wasn’t until last year, however, that he began competing in spelling bees.
“Now,” she said, “it has become like a game to him.”
Buckley, who said he learned to spell using a combination of phonics and memorization, has focused much of his study time on word roots, derivatives and vocabulary.
“I enjoy it – the exploration aspect, finding new words, learning their origins,” he said. “You pick up things that can help you.”
In fact, Buckley’s mother believes preparing for these spelling bees will help him prepare for his future education.
“I’m really happy he’s going through this because it’s forcing him to study,” Woelfle said. “He can’t just rely on his memory. Now he knows what studying is and he’s learning how to study. That will help him in high school and college.”
Buckley will miss all of next week at school, and he’ll need to take his final exams when he returns.
In the meantime, folks at St. Edward’s are planning watch parties in hopes that one of their own will make it to the ESPN2 stage next Thursday (May 29). The semifinals will be televised live at 10 a.m., with the finals scheduled for 8 p.m.
“I don’t think I’d be able to see all TV screens with my face on it, just the cameras, but I’ll probably be a little nervous being in front of 1,000 people in the audience,” Buckley said. “I’m not worried about it. Either way, I think I’ll do fine.”