MANGO — Fourteen-year-old Alina Meador used to fill her evenings with Jeopardy!, board games and novels. She spent her weekends at the movies or mall.
But now, it's all about spelling.
Since she won a schoolwide bee at Brandon Academy earlier this year, she's lived in a multisyllable world of silent "h's" and Latin roots.
She never planned to win the regional Scripps spelling contest in St. Petersburg on Feb. 28. She had always thought she was bad at spelling.
"You can't say that anymore," her English teacher, Wendy Cartier, said in her classroom.
Smiling, Alina agreed.
But for the next level, she knows she can't just be good. She must be amazing, a human spell check.
At the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., later this month, any word in the massive 2002 Webster's Third New International Dictionary is fair game.
Assiduous: Careful unremitting attention or persistent application.
Alina doesn't have any tricks up her sleeve. She doesn't jump rope like the main character in Akeelah and the Bee or have some kind of special power.
She's always had a good memory, though, her mom said. In the third grade, she memorized all the states and their capitals in two days. She did it with practice.
Lots of practice.
Each night after dinner, Alina sits down with a huge dictionary and a book filled with words from previous spelling bees. Her mom reads the words, and Alina writes them down in a notebook in colorful ink. They work for at least an hour and a half.
At school, she spends each third period with Cartier practicing more words. She breaks down tougher words into mnemonic pieces. Sinecure (pronounced si-ni-cure) becomes "sine" (like the math function) and "cure."
She looks up the definitions of words she doesn't recognize. In the two months she's been studying, her vocabulary has grown. She recently learned about colonoscopies when that word showed up on the spelling bee list, she and her mom said, laughing.
"Learning should be fun," Alina's mom, Linda Meador said one evening at the living room table, where they study. "This is fun. It really is, right?"
Oniomania: An uncontrollable desire to buy things.
Alina loves shopping. Oniomania is her favorite word, although she is the picture of self control.
She enjoys going to the mall with her mom. Before her weekends became spelling marathons, they visited the Westfield Brandon mall, International Plaza and sometimes The Mall at Millenia in Orlando. But not anymore.
Now there is no time for their daily Jeopardy! game. They have lost track of the latest casualties on American Idol. But they always make time for Ugly Betty.
Alina still cheers. She's the captain of Brandon Academy's squad, and she hopes to continue next year at the Academy of the Holy Names.
When she tires of spelling, she retreats to at least one safe zone in the house, where she relaxes and doesn't practice spelling: her room, where Hello Kitty posters hang from deep purple walls.
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Prodigious: exciting amazement or wonder
The Friday before the regional spelling bee in St. Petersburg, Alina's friend Anneka Mistry told her to call when she won.
That Saturday, after a breakfast of chocolate chip waffles, Alina got in the car. On the way to the bee, she told her mom that she hoped she'd lose.
"I said 'I really hope I don't win because it's just hours and hours of 'spell illuminati, spell this and that,' and it was overwhelming that I had to spell so much," she said.
But she won.
"Carnivore" was her final word.
"I practiced that one," she said. "But it's funny. I'm a vegetarian."
At school the next week, Anneka brought Alina a balloon, a banner that students had signed and a notebook to write words in as she practiced.
She was the honoree at a school assembly, where she received roses and a letter from the head of the school, Robert Rudolph. Students told her they tuned in to watch her television interviews at home.
"That made me nervous," she said.
Thinking about possibly being on national TV later this month is especially nerve wracking, she said. ESPN and ABC televises the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
"I have a lot of time to study for it, but it'll still be kind of scary being on TV," she said. "What if I mess up? What if I trip?"
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Impetus: A driving force
It's tough studying for hours each day. Alina may be mature, she may be an honor student, but, in the end, she's 14.
Still, Alina and her mom say the hours of studying are great time together. They're always together anyway, planning "date nights" for Fridays, watching Indie flicks at night and going on road trips on the weekends. They still road trip, but now Alina brings her spelling books along.
They even share favorite bands — the stuff Linda Meador grew up with: Led Zeppelin, ACDC, Pink Floyd, Van Halen.
"We've always been close, like girlfriends," Linda Meador said.
When one starts to get tired of studying for the spelling bee, the other offers encouragement to keep going. They make studying fun by playing Scrabble with the long words and lying out in the sun in their back yard with the books.
They take breaks to play a game or go for a walk.
"You don't want to get burned out on it," Linda Meador said.
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Emulation: ambition or endeavor to equal or excel others
Alina wants to be a cardiologist.
When she goes to medical school, she'll have an advantage: She knows how to spell a lot of diseases.
"There's a lot of -itis, -osis, -ectomy, and -odomy," she said of the words on her list.
Though she studies for hours each day, she's not obsessed with the idea of winning the national bee. She's ambitious, but she's got other goals.
"It would be cool to win, but I'm just going to go there and do my best," she said.
Anyway, it'll be a fun trip because she'll get to see the city and visit family. Her aunts, uncles, cousins and grandfather live in the D.C. area. They may be able to attend the final round of the competition, which is broadcast on television, if Alina makes it that far.
When the contest ends, Alina says she will move on. She can't compete next year because the bee is only for students through the eighth grade. Next year, she starts high school.
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2443.