THOMASVILLE, N.C. — Hayat Alkadir learned everything she needs to know for the next week from two sources: her older sister and the dictionary.
The Winston-Salem Journal reported that Hayat, a Ledford Middle School eighth-grader, will head to Washington, D.C., this week where she will be one of 281 competing in the Scripps National Spelling Bee and continue what is now a family tradition that could be a Triad spelling dynasty in the making.
Hayat, 13, earned her ticket to Washington by winning the regional spelling bee, sponsored by the Winston-Salem Journal and Truliant Federal Credit Union. She’s the second Alkadir to win that competition, and perhaps not the last. To get to the regional bee, Hayat had to beat her little brother, Hamza, 10.
“I’m very proud of myself,” Hayat said, sitting in her living room wearing her “Scripps” T-shirt.
Hayat became interested in competitive spelling after watching her older sister, Nejat, compete for several years. Nejat, now 15, was the 2012 regional champion and punched the family’s first ticket to D.C. She was knocked out after the second round. The next year, Nejat again won her county bee to compete in the regional competition. She lasted through 20 rounds but ended up in second place.
Nejat’s spelling career came to a bittersweet end this year when she moved to high school, aging out of the competition. While she could not compete, though, it opened the door for her siblings. Hayat and Hamza won their school spelling bees, competed against each other in their county bee and were the last two standing for several rounds. Hamza finished second to his sister.
Hayat and Hamza admit they’re not as passionate about spelling as their older sister, but they both still have the chops.
“She’s the one who started it,” Hayat said of her older sister. “I didn’t care before she started. I wouldn’t be here without her.”
Hayat learned the ins and outs of spelling bees and the rigorous preparation they require from Nejat but has developed her own methods. Hayat likes to write, type and say the words she’s learning. Leading up to big competitions, she spends two or three hours a day studying. That’s on top of homework.
It means she doesn’t have time to read as many novels as she would like, but it’s worth it, she says. Instead, Hayat spends most of her time reading just one book: the dictionary, Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, to be exact. The unabridged dictionary contains more than 475,000 entries and has more than 2,500 pages. Hayat sits down with the massive book, skimming the pages and reading the words she doesn’t know.
“It’s the best way to study,” she said.
Since spelling has become a family affair, Hayat and Hamza study together, too. When it came down to just the two of them at the Davidson County spelling bee, Nejat said that she and her mother were able to breathe a sigh of relief — just happy that one of them would win. While it was Hayat this year, there’s still time for Hamza. He’s only a fourth-grader.
Hayat, Nejat and Hamza’s parents — Sitina Kerim and Aminu Alemu — are Ethiopian immigrants. English is their second language and the family still speaks Amharic around their High Point home. Alemu said he’s proud of his children’s spelling successes.
“I learned English when I came here,” Alemu said. “We teach our children they need to better educated. They do good and they study very hard.”
Unfortunately, speaking Amharic doesn’t give the Alkadir children much of a leg up in the spelling competitions.
“Only a handful of words are based on that language,” Hayat said.
Hayat said she studies other languages to learn their word patterns. Those patterns help her with unfamiliar words. Words like roulette, which follows the French language patterns, are her favorite.
Hayat traveled with her sister two years ago to the national competition, so she knows what to expect. She said she’s not sure how far she’ll get, but she expects to spell her two preliminary round words correctly.
The spelling bee kicks off with preliminary computer tests Tuesday. The first round of live spelling, where each speller receives two words, starts Wednesday and will be broadcast live on ESPN3 from 8 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. The semifinals will take place Thursday and the finals Friday.