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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, March 26, 2009

Luxi Peng spells her way to the nation’s capital

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — When Luxi Peng was 2 years old, she moved here with her family from China.

“I was absolutely horrible at English during kindergarten,” she said. So she worked at it.

She started getting perfect scores on her elementary school spelling tests.

“When I was in fourth grade, I saw the National Spelling Bee on TV and I thought, ‘I want to do that,’” she said.

Now, she’s on her way.

Last week, Peng, at age 12, won the Greater Capital Region Spelling Bee, meaning she’ll travel to Washington, D.C. on an all-expenses-paid trip in May to compete in the national championship.

“I want to make it to the third round, so it’s on TV,” she said.

The first round, she explained, is computerized and the second round is oral. “Those are combined and you need a certain score to make the third round on TV,” she said.

Peng has goals beyond that, though.

“This year, I’ll do the best I can,” she said. “Next year, I’d like to finish near the top.”

A seventh-grader at Farnsworth Middle School, Peng met weekly this year with Deborah Escobar, an enrichment teacher at the school, for coaching, and then studied for hours on her own. Escobar said she plans to watch the ESPN broadcast of the bee, which takes place from May 25 to 29.

“I pretty much memorized all the words in Spell It!,” Peng said, referring to a study booklet put out by the bee, which has 1,500 words.

She went on, describing her study techniques, “At least half the words to study have roots in Latin or Greek, so I’ve been studying those two languages,” she said. She also studies French at school and knows Chinese.

She credits her success to her training. “I wasn’t stressed in the first few rounds,” she said. “I knew after two rounds who the last four would be…I could tell by what questions they asked.”

Nearly 100 students, winners in their school bees, competed, and the bee, held at Proctor’s Theatre in Schenectady, lasted for an agonizing four hours and 20 minutes.

“Somebody said it took 322 words to win, the most ever,” said Peng. “The top four finishers took a really long time…I remember thinking, ‘Will I get out before midnight? When will I go to bed?’”

Finally, Andrew Becker from Ichabod Crane missed a word, and then Ashley LaMere from Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake was out.

That left just Peng and Preston Law, who is schooled at home.

“The two went at it for an hour,” said Escobar. “Neither missed a word for one whole hour. Some of the words I had never heard before.”

Then Law missed the word “anthracite.”  He spelled it “anthrocyte.”

“He spelled it exactly like I would have spelled it,” said Peng. “After the pronouncer said it was Greek, I thought it would end in ‘cyte’ like ‘lymphocyte’ and I thought the first part was ‘anthro’ like ‘human’…I thought he was right, and then the lady said, ‘I’m sorry.’”

Peng went on to spell the final word, “geogenous,” correctly, although, again, it was a word she didn’t know but figured out from the roots.

How did she feel on being pronounced the winner? “My first emotion was really relief,” she said. “It was finally over. Then I was happy.”

“When she won,” I jumped out of my chair,” said Escobar. “I was jumping up and down.” So was Peng’s mother, Qingxiu Luo. “We ran to hug each other,” said Escobar.

Peng also is on her school’s MathCounts team, which recently came in first in a regional competition. Other interests include tennis — “I want to try out for JV,” she said — and playing the clarinet. She’s currently practicing the First Concerto by Weber for a New York State School Music Association competition. “It’s the same day I get back from Washington,” she said, unfazed. “I’ll get in at 2 or 3 a.m., sleep a couple of hours, and then go to NYSSMA.”

She and her 7-year-old sister live with their parents. Her father is a nanotechnology researcher and her mother is an information technology specialist.

“Very proud”

The national bee was started in 1925 by the Louisville Courier-Journal with just nine contestants. It grew to become the country’s largest and longest-running educational promotion. Since 1941, it has been sponsored on a not-for-profit basis by The E.W. Scripps Company supported by local sponsors. The Times Union sponsors the Greater Capital Region Spelling Bee.

The contest is open to students younger than 15 who have not completed eighth grade.

Each language-arts class at Farnsworth conducts a spelling competition and then those 35 to 40 best spellers compete to represent the school in the Capital Region bee.  The four Farnsworth winners this year, in addition to Peng, were Zubin Mukerjee, Kristen Bourgeois, and Hannah Liu.

“All four went to the regional bee and all four came in very well,” said Escobar, with three in the top 10. “I’m very proud of them.”

The strategies that Escobar worked on included “learning the etymology to figure out how it’s spelled when you don’t know the word.”

She gave some examples. The Dutch “k” sound is spelled “ch” as in “school.” The Japanese “e” sound is spelled with an “i” as in “hibachi.”

Escobar said she enjoyed working with Peng and learned a lot herself. “I told her, ‘You’re an experiment. You’re going to teach me as much as I teach you.’ She did,” said Escobar.

“It got me hooked,” she said of coaching Peng. “It’s a fun undertaking. I thought spelling was rote and just memorization,” she said. “But it’s not. It’s learning vocabulary, and pronunciation, and different dialects from different countries.”

Peng’s win in the regional bee was a first for the Guilderland School District, said Escobar. “My eyes have been opened by Luxi,” she said. “Sometimes kids lead the way and pull you into things.”

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