By Chris Kieffer
TUPELO – Tupelo seventh-grader Maria Kaltchenko loves words.
She likes to read them, she likes to learn them and she likes to spell them. And the 11-year-old is pretty good at that, too.
On Saturday, she won the regional Mid-South Spelling Bee in Memphis to qualify for the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., in May.
Yes, that is the famed competition whose finals are annually broadcast on ESPN.
“I like learning new words, and I like the competition part,” Maria said on Monday when asked about what she enjoys about the spelling contest. “There is so much adrenaline. When you get a word right, it is so exciting.”
Maria has won the last two Lee County Spelling Bees. She is believed to be the first Tupelo student to win the Mid-South Spelling Bee in at least 43 years, said Derwood Tutor, longtime director of the school district’s Hancock Leadership Center, which hosts the county contest.
Saturday’s competition featured 50 spellers from five states. Maria placed fifth at it last year and learned a valuable lesson. Many of the words she was given were random ones, not taken from various study lists she had reviewed.
As she prepared for this year’s event, she spent more time analyzing rules and how a word is formed. It paid off when she won a 24-round duel with runner-up Coleman Swarzfazer of Bolivar County.
The winning word was “tardigrade,” which both means “slow moving” and is the name of an aquatic creature. Maria didn’t know the word, but she guessed it shared a root word with “tardy.” And since the officials told her it had a Latin origin, she deduced the middle sound was likely an “i.”
After she had spelled it, there was “an ominous pause.” Then, she learned she had won.
“It was relief, happiness,” she said. “I couldn’t believe it at first.”
Maria believes her talent for spelling is connected to her interest in reading and language. Last year, she was the state champion in the “Letters about Literature” competition for a piece she wrote on Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre.”
She first learned to read in Russian, her mother’s native language, and as a first-grader, she read “Little Women” and became fascinated with classics. Currently, she is reading “Gone With the Wind.”
In studying for spelling bees, she takes lists of words and breaks down their definition, origin and roots.
“The learning part is interesting,” she said. “I feel more knowledgeable when I study more words.”