One visit to the Closs family hive confirms their enthusiasm for spelling bees.
There’s a sunflower-yellow metal bee sculpture adjacent to the front door. Inside the house, bookshelves are lined with shiny spelling bee trophies and hefty Merriam-Webster dictionaries. Stacks of notebooks contain pages and pages of words and study notes.
Starting May 27, 12-year-old Hanna Closs from Lucas Middle School in Durham will travel with her family to Washington D.C. and compete in the Scripps National Spelling Bee. She will be Speller No. 370 in the competition, going up against 518 spellers from across the country, and represent Durham and Orange counties.
When asked what she most looks forward to at the national bee, Hanna said, “Chilling back and having fun, doing the best that I can. It’s my last year (competing). I want to enjoy it as much as I possibly can.”
This is the fourth time the Closs family will attend the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Hanna’s older sister, Northern High School ninth grader Bettie Closs, competed three times in a row at the national level after correctly spelling the Duke University Regional Spelling Bee championship words in 2014 (impunity), 2015 (corrade) and 2016 (catechistic).
Back in March at Riverside High School in Durham, Hanna carried on the family’s bee legacy at the Duke University Regional Spelling Bee, correctly spelling championship word “ornithofauna,” which means “the birds of a region or habitat,” in the 11th round.
On weekdays after school, Hanna studies vocabulary and spelling for a few hours, and Bettie supports her by creating digital flashcards. Their mom, Almaz, quizzes Hanna daily on Latin roots, suffixes and stems of words. On weekends, Hanna is up at 8 a.m. studying.
“There’s a lot of spellers that kind of just study on their own, do it on their own,” Bettie said. “But we’re a family. We support each other.”
On a recent Tuesday morning, the family of four leaned over a laptop, examining a database of Romanian words. Almaz and Bettie help Hanna with her studying regimen, and Willie, the father, serves as cheerleader. When he is working in the home office and typing business letters on his computer, he will have his daughters spellcheck for him. In the kitchen, the family holds spirited conversations about obscure words they have learned together such as “apojove.”
“When a Jupiter moon is in a phase of its orbit, furthest away from Jupiter, it is in ‘apojove,’” Willie exclaimed. “That is only unique to a Jupiter moon!”
Taped to the kitchen pantry door are colorful drawings of bees that Hanna’s Lucas Middle School classmates made for her. They wrote encouraging messages on the back of each bee such as “Bee Happy!” and “You Got This!”
At school, Hanna also participates in the Battle of the Books reading competition, plays percussion in the school concert band, and plays basketball. As the Scripps National Spelling Bee draws closer, her classmates have been high-fiving her in the hallway, and the school’s front office has displayed a spelling bee countdown that reads, “We don’t watch ESPN for sports. We watch it for Hanna.”
The Scripps National Spelling Bee Preliminaries, which include a spelling and vocabulary multiple-choice test and onstage oral spelling, start May 29, and the oral spelling Finals begin on May 31. The competition will be broadcast on different ESPN channels.
The top speller at the national level will receive a $42,500 cash prize from Scripps and Merriam-Webster, an engraved trophy, the chance to appear on the “Live with Kelly and Ryan” TV show in New York City, and more.
As a speller, Hanna is known for her patience, in which she stands at the microphone and draws a word using her finger on her palm. She will mouth the word to feel out its spelling.
“I’m apparently a visual learner,” Hanna said. “It’s something about seeing the word on your hand, and not only on your hand, in your mind … It just comes to me.”
Bettie said she looks forward to being in the audience this time and getting to watch her sister compete. Leading up to the national bee, Hanna’s family has been sharing words of wisdom with her.
Success doesn’t come easily.
Luck favors the prepared.
“Regardless of what happens, you’re already a champion,” Willie said. “And as long as you knew you did the best you could, everything’s going to be alright.”
And Hanna has also given advice to herself.
“It’s your last year,” Hanna said. “Give it all you can. Try your best. Take your time. Put in all your effort and just hope that you get the best outcome.”
Learn more about this year’s Scripps National Spelling Bee competition at spellingbee.com. Updates about Hanna’s Scripps journey will be posted the week of May 28 on the Duke Office of Durham and Community Affairs’ Facebook page.