Chestnut Hill teen falls short in spelling bee finals

Posted: May 31, 2012

A 14-year-old Philadelphian fell short Thursday night in the Championship Finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

After cruising through the first three preliminary rounds Wednesday, Lena Greenberg of Chestnut Hill was one of nine young spelling experts who survived three rounds of the semifinals Thursday afternoon. She rattled off the spellings of catallactics,contrecoup, and cholecystitis in rounds four through six.

In the finals, Greenberg made it through two rounds, nailing otosteon and yttriferous, but fell short on her third word, geistlich.

During the semifinals, Greenberg's demeanor gave away her nerves; onstage, she held her face, head down, as she was asked to spell cholecystitis.

"I hoped that I would [make it to the finals], I really did hope, but you know, I was going to be happy just to make it to the semifinals," Greenberg said by phone after the semifinals. "When I got to the last round, I was like, please, please, let me in."

Her wishful thinking paid off. The home-schooled eighth grader was able to spell the word correctly and dash back to her seat. At the end of the semifinals, Greenberg could be seen throwing her arms in the air, giving high-fives to her fellow finals-bound spellers. Only nine of the 50 young people in the semifinals advanced.

Greenberg's excitement is understandable: In addition to a trophy, prizes on the line include $30,000 in cash, a $2,500 savings bond, a $5,000 scholarship, $2,600 of reference works, and an online language course.

Greenberg said she had been doing spelling bees for about three years but had always been a pretty good speller. Her mother, Marisol Villamil, said she had come a long way since she first watched a bee in 2006, after her grandmother recommended it.

"I go over a lot of lists. I study a lot of root words, which is how I figured out my last word, really," Greenberg said. "I come up with stories . . . give letters personalities.

"I fit [practicing] in with school," Greenberg added. "I have to say, it sounds like a cliche, but there were so many words in the semifinals that I didn't know and when I got words that I didn't know that I could figure out, I felt really humble and great."

Greenberg is interested in foreign languages and cultures, politics, and current events. She said she speaks Spanish, too.

Villamil said that she teaches her daughter at home, but that she acts as more of a guide. She said she didn't necessarily emphasize spelling in her daughter's education.

"I'm a language and literature person," Villamil said. "I think it's just because she's genetically my daughter, between the two of us there was an emphasis on language and literature."

No matter the results of the Championship Finals, Villamil said, her daughter's success thus far is a victory in itself.

"The dominant feeling is that I'm just so happy for her. This is something that she's been wanting for so long. It's almost like a dream," Villamil said.

Greenberg advanced to the semifinals Wednesday from the preliminaries, which included a written test and two oral rounds.

Her correct spelling of contrecoup in Thursday's fifth round followed three upsets by her peer semifinalists, who were unable to correctly spell cabochon,araphorostic, and resveratrol.


Contact Angelo Fichera at afichera@philly.com, 215-854-4904 or @AJFichera on Twitter.

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