Spelling bee success runs in the family
By Loretta Fulton
Photography courtesy of the Miller family
Thank goodness Kate Miller has a little brother.
Otherwise, Abilenians might not have a local favorite to cheer for during the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee held in Washington, D.C., each May.
Kate, who will turn 15 in May, made three trips to the national bee, ending her career in 2014 as a finalist, tying for eighth place. This year, Kate will be encouraging younger brother Jack, who in February won the 17th Annual Hendrick Children’s Hospital Big Country Spelling Bee, sponsored by the Abilene Reporter-News.
As winner of the regional competition, Jack, 11, will be on the big stage in May. If he makes it to the later rounds of the competition, Jack, like his sister before him, will be on national TV. Each year, ESPN televises the final rounds and draws a huge national audience.
If Jack makes it that far, one of his biggest cheering sections will be at St. Paul United Methodist Church, where the family attends. In previous years, the youths were glued to a TV watching Kate. They are hoping to do the same for Jack.
“We’re very excited for Jack,” said Becki Wilson, a St. Paul Sunday School teacher who has taught both Miller children. “It’s nice to see Jack have his time in the light.”
No one would agree with that more than big sister, Kate, who not only cheers for Jack but helps him – sometimes a little more than he might want. According to Kate and Jack’s parents, John and Bonnie Miller, Kate worked like an athlete training for the Olympics in preparation for her spelling bees.
Jack studies his spelling lists dutifully, too, but confesses to wanting a little time for other things.
“I really like to take weekends off,” Jack said. “Kate calls it a bad habit.”
So, just how did the brother/sister duo get to be such top-notch spellers? To start with, their dad, John, said both parents are natural spellers. Both graduated from the University of California at Berkeley, where they met.
John also teaches religion classes at McMurry University, including Latin and Greek. Kate occasionally has sat in on some of her father’s classes. Both children are home-schooled and use a college-level Latin textbook in their schoolwork.
Jack displayed an unusual method of spelling when he was only three years old. One day, Bonnie noticed Jack had arranged all his toy animals in a particular way. She moved one and he moved it back.
“We thought he was just making tidy rows of animals,” Bonnie said.
But, in fact, Jack had devised his own way of spelling. He placed the animals in order based on the first letter of their name. An elephant represented the letter “e” and an orangutan represented “o.” Jack was spelling a word by using the animals as letters.
Eight years later, Jack’s method has advanced considerably. He will be competing against almost 300 other youngsters in the national spelling bee and started working on the word list as soon as the regional bee was over.
He will follow the same pattern at the next level that has proven a winner for him. As soon as he gets his word, Jack asks for its origin and then pre-spells it by “writing” it in his palm with his index finger. Kate used the same method until advancing to “air typing” and no doubt Jack will get there too.
After the pre-writing, Jack asks for a definition, part of speech and alternate pronunciation. Most likely, what comes next is the correct spelling of the word.
The Harry Potter look-a-like could easily be mistaken for a kid who never takes his head out of a book. But Jack, just like sister Kate, is as well-rounded as the next youngster. Both children are active in their Sunday School class at St. Paul. Kate is a member of a Girl Scout Troop at the church that is led by her mother and Wilson, the Sunday School teacher. She also is into ballet, sings in the church choir, and participates in debate and speech through an agreement with Cooper High School.
“I just enjoy everything,” Kate said. “Now is the time for me to be open-minded.”
In early March, Kate was one of six students who participated in the 2015 Texas Forensic Association’s Annual State Tournament in El Paso. As a home-school student, Kate is allowed to participate in that association’s contests, but not in University Interscholastic League meets, her coach, Seth Pietsek, said.
At the Texas Forensic Association’s tournament in March, Kate competed in prose reading but also is on a debate team at other contests. Pietsek said Kate is learning the difference between spelling bees and debate competition. Only one answer is correct in a spelling bee, Pietsek said, but not in debate. Kate is working hard at being as good at debate, Pietsek said, as she is in spelling.
“She will be,” he said, “with the type of work ethic she brings to it.”
That same work ethic resulted in a meditation that Kate wrote when she was 12 being accepted for publication in The Upper Room, the daily devotional booklet of the United Methodist Church. Her meditation, titled, “Spotting God,” was selected for the April 6, 2015, devotional, which is read by thousands of United Methodists nationwide. Kate also writes for a blog posted on the The Upper Room website.
“That has been such a joy for me to see,” her mother said.
Jack, too, is quite active outside of school work. He is in a Boy Scout Troop and is quite accomplished in a hybrid form of martial arts with a name that no doubt helps with his spelling studies – Ki-do-kai Kenpo/Kajukenbo.
At age 11, Jack already is at intermediate level, just one step below the “advanced” or top level. His instructor at Texas Martial Arts, Lou Ivie, isn’t surprised that Jack is so accomplished at both spelling and the intricate form of martial arts. Both require many of the same skills, discipline, and focus.
“It helps the mind develop a deeper concept of sequence,” Ivie said of martial arts.
Some of the sequences that Ivie teaches contain 65 moves, which keeps the mind focused and disciplined – kind of like a spelling bee.
While John and Bonnie Miller are rightfully proud of their children’s successes in and out of the classroom, they are equally delighted with the response of the entire Abilene community. Each year, as Kate got to be better known, people began recognizing her in town. People who never met her before came up to offer congratulations.
“Abilene has been just incredible for both our kids,” John said. “The support and encouragement has just been amazing.”
Nothing would please Jack’s family, friends, and all of Abilene more than to see him as a repeat National Spelling Bee contestant like Kate. When Jack won the regional bee in February, his pastor at St. Paul, the Rev. Felicia Hopkins, announced the victory from the pulpit.
His Sunday School teacher, Becki Wilson, was there applauding and beaming along with everyone else. She hopes it won’t be the last time Jack wins the regional meet and heads to Washington.
“We’ve gotten used to those Millers being there,” she said.