The secret of being a good speller, says Peter Westbrook, is being an avid reader.
It’s an opinion worth listening to as it comes from a Bishop Seabury Academy eighth-grader who won the state spelling bee March 4 in Topeka, improving on his fourth-place finish in 2015.
“I read a lot of things in school settings, and I read pretty much all the news, too,” he said. “Currently, I’m reading ‘Inca Gold’ by Clive Cussler.”
Peter’s mother Amy Westbrook agreed his reading habits were part of his success. He and his two older siblings who are now students at Harvard University share an interest in languages, she said. She also thinks Peter has another trait that serves him well in competitions.
“He’s calm and thinks it through,” his mother said. “It gives him competitive endurance and the ability to be able to think under stress.”
There was a lot of stress in his lengthy one-on-one battle with Joseph Ward, an eighth-grader from the Perry-Lecompton school district, for the state title.
“It was 32 rounds, which was longer than anything I had been in before,” he said. “By the end, they were completely off the word list, so I was pretty nervous because I had no idea what word I was going to get.”
As it turned out, Peter correctly spelled “random” to win the title after Ward missed on “tragedian” when he spelled it this a “j” rather than a “g.”
“I think I could have spelled it,” Peter said. “I think my competitor could have, too. He just got tripped up. It came down to luck in the end. I got a lot of words I was familiar with and was fairly sure I knew how to spell.”
One advantage he enjoyed was the confidence of having been to the state finals before, Peter said. He won the 2015 Douglas County competition, but lost in his school’s contest last year.
With the win, Peter earned a trip to Washington, D.C., for the Scripps National Spelling Bee, which starts May 28. He’s already received a partial word list, with words he characterized as “very big and difficult.” The trip to the nation’s capital will be a reunion tour for his mother and father, David Westbrook. The two Harvard Law School graduates and current law professors practiced in Washington before Peter was born.
“He’ll get to hear all the ‘this is where we lived,’ ‘this is where we shopped for groceries’ and ‘this is where we worked,’” his mother said.
As for how Peter will do in the national contest, his mother is confident he’ll do well.
“He’s someone with a lot of interests, so he won’t be studying spelling 24 hours a day,” she said. “I don’t know if that’s an advantage or a disadvantage.”
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