By Marta Hill
While many seventh graders come home from school and spend the evening playing sports or maybe playing Xbox, Sulayman Abdirahman spends his evenings going through flashcards and quizzing himself on how to spell words, all to better prepare himself for spelling bee competitions.
His hard work has paid off so far — the seventh grader from Mattapan’s Brooke Charter School won his school spelling bee and went on to win Boston’s 14th annual BCYF Citywide Spelling Bee in March.
However, his work wasn’t done after that competition. Now he is preparing for the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., at the end of May.
For the city spelling bee, Sulayman and the other competitors were working off of a list of words, now the list is the entire dictionary.
“I’ve been studying quite a bit. … I’m trying relaxing a bit more but I’m still studying,” Sulayman told Boston.com in a late March interview. “A lot of people have been telling me, ‘When you get to D.C., enjoy it. Don’t think of this as if you have to win.’”
In order to qualify for the national competition, Sulayman first had to qualify for and win the citywide competition. Even before that, he competed in his class and school spelling bees.
The first time he won the classroom spelling bee and went on to the school level was fourth grade. At the class level, the competition is mandatory, Sulayman said. But he still went the extra mile, memorizing every word on the list of options.
In 2019, Sulayman came in second at the citywide spelling bee. To study for that competition, Sulayman said he wrote around 8,000 words on flashcards in order to quiz himself.
His English and language arts and history teacher Sean McKenna said Sulayman has been on people’s radar since that first citywide competition.
“It was very exciting [when he won],” McKenna said. “He competed in the Boston one when he was in fourth grade. I was still teaching at the school at that time, so there were emails going around the school and a lot of buzz about this fourth grader competing against seventh and eighth graders. He beat everyone in our school that year handily. It wasn’t even close.”
After a break from competing because of COVID-19, Sulayman came back to competing this year. McKenna said he thinks if COVID hadn’t happened, Sulayman would have qualified for the national competition even earlier.
Now, Sulayman said he uses digital flashcards to study, which are easier because they include more information, like the word’s correct pronunciation and country of origin. One of his favorite techniques to spell challenging words is using prefixes and suffixes, Sulayman said.
“A lot of words in the English dictionary, they have prefixes and suffixes. … Like if you had cephalopod: Like cephalo- is a prefix of something … and then a -pod is a suffix for something else, so you can know how to spell a word,” Sulayman said.
Sulayman’s spelling skills don’t just shine in competition, McKenna said.
“Many times in class, I will start to stop spelling something on the board. And I will say, ‘Sulay, spell this for me and he will help me do it,’” McKenna said. “There are instances where other students will get upset with me and say, ‘Why don’t you ask the rest of us?’ and I say ‘When there’s a professional in the building, you ask the professional,’ and that’s certainly what he is.”
McKenna attributes much of Sulayman’s success to hard work and the support he gets from his family.
“I had so little to do with the process of him studying. I cannot take an ounce of credit for absolutely any of his success,” McKenna said. “His dedication to it is so impressive. I was really excited for him, really excited for his family.”
The city spelling bee that ended on March 19 was long and stressful, both Sulayman and his mom Farhia Ali said. Sulayman remembers there being a loud crowd, though many people left before he won because the rounds went on for so long.
“It was great. It was really tiring, like the whole thing, because there were a lot of rounds. It was a lot longer than any other Spelling Bee I’ve ever been in,” Sulayman said. “But at the end, I was happy, of course, I was excited for it.”
He lasted 12 normal rounds and 29 final rounds in the competition, according to The Boston Globe.
“I think with him and the person who got second place, there was more than an hour [of it] just between them, going back and forth,” Ali said. “That was nerve-racking, really like, ‘Who’s it gonna be?’ Going back and forth. Then, one time, they both got one wrong. So it was very tough competition.”
Sulayman’s winning word, “apres,” was short, just five letters. But those five letters bought him a ticket to nationals.
Even though he is hoping to also enjoy the trip, he hasn’t stopped studying.
“He has a schedule that we have put on our fridge every week, so that we can see it,” Ali said. “The weekend is about six hours. The weekdays are about three to four hours after school. … He has given up his free time using Xbox and gaming and playing with his friends, so he’s making a lot of sacrifices to study.”
The day before spelling bees is even more intense, sometimes he studies up to 10 hours in preparation, frantically reviewing everything he’s worked on so far.
Sulayman will compete at the Scripps National Spelling Bee from May 31 through June 2.
Once the tournament starts, the nerves aren’t over. Both Sulayman and Ali said the experience of spelling bees is stressful, and nationals will be no exception.
“It just very nerve-racking really [to think], ‘OK, what’s the next word? Will he get it?’” Ali asked. “He likes to take his time and think about the word and ask questions. Just waiting for him to finish spelling the word, and then you know the person to say, ‘Oh, correct.’ I cannot sit still.”
The Scripps National Spelling Bee is a little different from any other spelling bee Sulayman has competed in. There are the obvious differences like having to travel to compete and competing against a larger group (this year’s competition has 234 competitors), but there are also more nuanced changes.
“It’s gonna be way longer. … It’s a weeklong — it’s not like a weeklong of only pure competition though,” Sulayman said. “Since we’re in Washington, they have a hotel rented out for the families. So I’m gonna be sleeping in a different place. It’s going to be a completely different mentality.”
The competition also has a slightly different format than other spelling bees. For starters, instead of having a limited list of words that he can be asked to spell, this competition uses the entirety of the unabridged Merriam-Webster dictionary. In the second level of every round — the preliminaries, quarterfinals, semifinals, and finals — there is also a multiple-choice, word-meaning question for each participant.
Usually, competitors can request a word’s pronunciation, a definition, use in a sentence, part of speech, language(s) of origin, and alternate pronunciation(s), according to the rules for the 2022 competition.
Sulayman said a word’s definition and use in a sentence can help remind him of where he may have seen a word before, which can help him remember the spelling. One of the more helpful requests he can make is the language of origin, he said.
“If the language of origin is Greek, it might be spelled differently (than if) the language of origin was French or something,” Sulayman said. “You can get hints on sounds and letters because of the language of origin.”
Since a young age, Sulayman has loved reading, Ali said, something she thinks has helped him with spelling bees.
“He always finishes reading the level they have in the classroom and they have to order more books but a much higher level for him to read,” Ali said. “I think that’s one of the things that helped him.”
The national spelling bee will be streamed on ION from May 31 through June 2, and the finals will be hosted by LeVar Burton.
“I think it’s just such an outstanding opportunity for him,” McKenna said. “Because of the student he is and the support he has from his family, he’s gonna have a lot of opportunities in his life … and this is one example of an incredible one.”
Ali said she is excited for Sulayman to be in D.C. with other kids who have similar interests.
“This is a really great opportunity. I’m so happy the city of Boston is offering this to young students to explore something, you know, other than sports or now the extracurriculars that they do at schools,” Ali said. “It’s a great thing that they have the spelling bee for students who are into reading and spelling words.”
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