Samantha Casts a Spell

By MANDY LOCKE

A simple exchange of an "I" for an "O" cost the Vineyard's own Samantha Gillogly the title of National Spelling Bee Champion. The 12-year-old from Oak Bluffs advanced to the sixth round, staying neck and neck with 22 other contestants.

Diapason - defined by Webster as "the entire range of a musical instrument or voice" - stumped the calm and poised Vineyarder on Thursday in the 74th annual Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee, held in Washington, D.C.

"I had never even seen the word before. You have to study Greek and Latin roots to be prepared for unfamiliar words. I asked for the root, but they didn't have one listed with the definition," Samantha said in a conversation at home yesterday.

Samantha, a self-confessed voracious reader, only decided in February to try her luck at spelling bee competitions. She spent the next few months poring over thousands of obscure words - writing and rewriting all of them to become familiar with spelling patterns.

"I had a lot of cramming to do because all of the other kids started preparing in September," Samantha said.

A diligent and committed student, Samantha drilled herself by night after she completed her routine school assignments. Then, the young woman snuck into her parents' office, clicked on the Scripps Howard website and listened to the pronunciations and definitions of likely words.

Her mother, Paula Slade, coached Samantha to the finish line. She admits, however, that she couldn't keep her daughter's pace toward the end.

"I quizzed her on the words I could pronounce. Every once in a while, Sam would say ‘Mom, you didn't pronounce it correctly,' " Mrs. Slade recalled.

Samantha's advanced pace is nothing new to her mother. Mrs. Slade pulled her daughter out of public school under the advisement of Samantha's teachers, who said she needed an extra challenge. Samantha now masters most subjects - including Russian and algebra - at the high school sophomore level.

And she spells like a champ. Of the words presented to all of the contestants, Samantha estimates she knew about 80 per cent. Her godfather, Noel Fahey, a trained linguist, confessed he could only spell about a quarter of them.

Despite all her practice, Samantha knew her fate in the championship relied on so many variables.

"Fifty per cent is luck. Fifty per cent is skill," she said.

As she watched her fellow contestants fall out of the competition as the rounds progressed, she advanced without falter, more confident as the pool of contestants shrank.

"It reminded me of how far I'd come," Samantha said.

Samantha's contingent of fans - parents, brother and godparents - tensed every time she stepped to the microphone. Her adopted Russian brother, Alexander, who now vows to compete in the national spelling bee in a few years - crossed his fingers and toes for his sister through each round.

"Some of the parents sit in the audience and wonder if it's harder for them or us," Mrs. Slade said, admitting that Samantha's stress must have surpassed her own.

When Samantha lost the battle to "diapason," she admits she was crushed.

"I thought I would make it to first place," she said.

Tying for 16th place this year, Samantha exhibited the skill and poise under pressure needed to secure a top spot for next year. The experience she gained at this competition could give her the edge she needs to claim the blue.

So now Samantha faces a tough decision. Contest rules stipulate a contestant can compete through the eighth grade or until they are 15, whichever comes first. She could enter the charter school this fall as a freshman and lose her eligibility to compete again, or she could be home-schooled another year and shoot for the championship again.

"I'm still really comfortable with home school. It's a hard decision," Samantha said.

Regardless of whether Samantha competes next year, she vows to relax this summer. Samantha's idea of relaxation, however, includes poring over books in the public library.

Her accomplishment this year has earned her a certain fame on the Vineyard. Students at all of the down-Island towns tuned in to watch the competition when it was aired live on ESPN last week. She accepts the requests for interviews, calls and cards of congratulations and the awe of her friends with an appreciative humility.

"My friends are excited for me," Samantha said with a smile. Her former classmates from Oak Bluffs sent flowers to the hotel in Washington, and her home school peers greeted her family at the airport Sunday night.

"We're all really proud of her. The community's been so supportive," Mrs. Slade said.

The return to her home in Oak Bluffs granted Samantha some needed perspective.

"I realized I had a lot of fun doing this, once I got over not winning first place," she said.

But the experience is one that Samantha will not be able to shake for quite some time.

"I've had dreams that I'm still studying. And I'll be very afraid of that little dinging bell for a long time," she confessed with a laugh.