When it comes to words, Lena's reputation precedes her; she recently tied for fourth place in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, held outside Washington.
But her ability to spell unpronounceable words isn't the only thing that makes her remarkable. Not only does she thoroughly enjoy homework, but many of the homeschooler's assignments are self-generated. She's currently interested in writing a paper highlighting the differences in tone between incumbent and challenger political advertisements, using a number of campaigns over the last few years as her sample. She has read all the installments of Harry Potter in English and in Spanish, and enjoys listening to James Taylor and Billy Joel.
The curly-haired teen takes after her mother, Marisol Villamil, a former writer, in terms of her major interests. Her father, David Greenberg, teaches film at University of the Arts and Arcadia University, and although she appreciates his passion for film, she tends to stick to the written word.
Lena "runs on her own steam," her mother said. She often fiddles with whatever object is in front of her when she speaks; at the Spelling Bee she stood out for a kinetic and infectious enthusiasm. She has a modest confidence and composure despite her jittery energy on stage at the bee. Her talking voice can be quiet, but her vocabulary and attitude reflect exceptional maturity.
That's part of what explains her mother's constant reminder that Lena is still 14 and not an adult. The two share a close bond; Lena isn't afraid to correct her mother, though it seems to stem from the young intellectual's need for precision. They finish each other's sentences, and one elaborates on the other's points.
While Lena enjoys learning about different cultures, she said she has no interest in attending a traditional school. Now entering the ninth grade, Lena has always been homeschooled, like her sister, Anna, 17. In fact, Lena said she plans to homeschool her own children. That's not uncommon among Spelling Bee contestants — nearly 10 percent, or 28 students, of the 278 spellers at the bee this year were homeschooled.
As she does when talking about the competition in the bee, Lena speaks highly about Anna, who has high-functioning autism, and her ability to play piano.
"I'm in awe of people who can play [music]. My grandmother plays, and my sister, but it's not quite my thing," Lena said.
Reflecting on her daughters' relationship, Villamil notes that Lena is understanding and perceptive, and able to assist her sister.
"She's like my wise, grounded soul," Villamil said, tears welling. "She's not just smart, she's very wise. She has really tremendous insight."
Lena's passion for writing has produced works in publications such as Stone Soup and Philadelphia Stories, Jr.
A nonfiction short story titled "Fairyland Behind the Drugstore" details Lena's imaginative childhood with Anna and her ability to look past her sister's disability. But it also confronts the reality of growing up, and growing apart.
Lena has also volunteered with the Friendship Circle, an organization serving Jewish children with special needs.
"I like being around kids and stuff. ... I just want someone else to have a good time — it's important," Lena said.
Helping people is something Lena cares about. Since she won't be age-eligible for the bee next year, she said she'll likely donate her 12 thousand-card boxes of study cards and related materials to a younger contestant entering for 2013.
For Lena, the bee has been more than a good time. Through the competition, she's made two of her "best friends," Dylan McEttrick, from California, and Veronica Penny, from Canada.
Before Lena left for the national competition, Dylan, who didn't attend this year, sent her a care package. It included a list of 124 neat, handwritten practice words, a T-shirt, a pocket-size glass bottle of rocks that now sits beside her window in "the Centre," and a letter.
"No matter what happens in D.C., Veronica and I both know what you are capable of. You are inspirational, you have taught me a lot," the letter read. Villamil said her daughter's friendship with the two is one of the best things to come from the competition these last few years.
As for Veronica, Lena said she had her friend with her throughout the competition: She taped a penny to the inside of each of her shiny gladiator-esque sandals that she sported during Bee Week.
While her mother checked the sandals to see if the pennies were still there — they were — Lena shouted downstairs to her mother with a playful prediction: "They'll be in a museum one day."
Contact Angelo Fichera at 215-854-4904, firstname.lastname@example.org and @AJFichera on Twitter.