Spelling Bee

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Mathis family continues its trips to the bee in D.C.

By Rita Howell
What on earth will the Mathis family do next spring?

For five years now, the Batesville family has taken an expense-paid trip to Washington, D.C. each May to attend the Super Bowl of spelling, the Scripps National Bee. They headed there for one last time on Sunday.

Elder daughter Meg, now 16, was a competitor for two years, and then Cherry, 14, followed. Both girls represented the Mid-South region, having won the regional bee in Memphis sponsored by the Commercial Appeal. They had advanced to that competition after winning the Tallahatchie County bee. Though they live in Batesville, they attend school in Charleston where their mom Keiko is a school music teacher.

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The sisters were recently recognized by the Mississippi House of Representatives with a lengthy resolution sponsored by Rep. Tommy Reynolds to commend them for their remarkable family tradition.

“WHEREAS, Meg and Cherry have made history because their five consecutive wins are an impressive record that no one family has ever achieved until now…” House Resolution 110 reads in part, “…we do hereby commend and congratulate Meg Mathis and Cherry Mathis on their historical five-year consecutive wins at the Mid-South Spelling Bee, and extend best wishes to these talented sisters for continued success in all of their future endeavors.”

For years now spelling has been a Mathis family passion. Both girls have developed disciplined routines for studying spelling words, devoting several hours each day to preparation for the bees. A room in their home is now filled with books, word lists, and spelling championship trophies.

Dad John has led the charge.

They’ve amassed lists of words from previous national bees, determining the derivations and studying the prefixes and suffixes. Then John determined the judges’ preferences for selecting words. Nineteen percent of the spelling bee words were of Latin origin one year, for example. So Cherry worked on words they determined to have a higher probability of being on “the list.”

“I’ve studied so much. Now I’m just doing random words,” she said last week.

“She has outstripped my ability to stay ahead of her,” John said.

The sisters have swapped roles, from driller to drillee, and Cherry also gets e-mail help from at least one former national competitor, a friend in Pennsylvania. Returning to the national bee will be three friends with whom she has kept up.

Not returning to the bee will be Mom, who prefers to wait at home, where the environment is less stressful.

It’s not all stressful, however.

The Scripps newspaper chain spares no expense in making “bee week” memorable for the spellers and their families. There are parties and tours, and a banquet for the finale.

The banquet is a dress-up affair, and John said he has habitually forgotten to pack a tie. So every year he goes out at the last minute to buy one.

“I have quite a collection of ties from Washington,” he said.

Though John admits to being nervous while he watches his daughter on stage before a national t.v. audience, Cherry’s returning as a veteran and sees an advantage this year.

“I’m not as nervous,” she said. “I’ll be able to think more clearly because I’ve done this before. It’s not as bad.”

The 81st Scripps National Spelling Bee will include 288 champion spellers from across the U.S. and several foreign countries. Competitors are ages 14 and under.

The semifinal rounds will be televised live on ESPN Friday at noon, and the final competition will be shown on ABC Friday.

Cherry is number 242.