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Focus helps Tejero win spelling bee

March 1, 2018

Before the Iroquois-Kankakee Regional Spelling Bee began, contestants gathered backstage for last-minute preparation, jiggling their legs and twisting their hands nervously as they asked questions about things such as capitalization and hyphens.

The front half of the auditorium at Bradley-Bourbonnais Community High School was full of supportive friends and family members, there to see who would be this year’s winner. It was a big night, more than just a spelling bee, but a chance to advance and compete at the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C.

“I was kind of nervous on stage, but at the same time, I was calm,” said this year’s winner, Laura Tejero, of Bradley Central. “I just calm myself down and try not to focus on everyone else. I pretend no one’s here and focus on the words.”

Tejero took first place after just 13 rounds Tuesday night, relatively short for a competition that has gone for more than 35 rounds in the past. Her winning word was “homogeneous,” while her peers tackled doozies such as “spoor,” “maraca” and “curriculum.” Isla Burke, of King Middle School, and Britta Lindgren, of Momence Junior High School, tied for second place, with Shyam Vachhani, of Bourbonnais Upper Grade Center, finishing fourth.

“I always feel like this is a cliche thing to say, but it’s important. The young men and women here tonight are champions in their schools,” said Gregg Murphy, superintendent of Iroquois and Kankakee County schools. “At the end of the night, we have a winner, but you’re really looking at champions from 18 schools.”

This year’s judges were Kankakee County Clerk Dan Hendrickson, Assistant Regional Superintendent of Schools Frank Petkunas and Drug-Free Communities Grant Coordinator Kate Reed, with retired educator Will Rezba continuing his 15-year tradition as pronouncer. The spelling bee is coordinated by the Iroquois-Kankakee Regional Office of Education and sponsored by the Daily Journal and Presence St. Mary’s Hospital. The newspaper funds the winning student’s trip to D.C.

Last year’s regional bee winner, Shreeta Vachhani, finished in the top 50 out of 291 contestants at the Scripps National Spelling Bee, which is almost 100 years old and televised across the country.

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity filled to the brink with happiness and joyfulness. I got to meet numerous individuals who became my friends,” said Shreeta, who is Shyam’s older sister. “Those four or five days were like nothing I’ve experienced before. Even when you’re about to spell in front of all those people and cameras, you feel nothing but anticipation.”

Tejero has several months to prepare for her own trip to the national bee, which runs May 29-31. She’ll keep studying with the help of her father, Jojo, and her mother, Wilma, who practice with her every other school day and during weekends. Wilma, whose birthday is March 4, joked her daughter had given her an early present.

All the students at the spelling bee agreed that, even in an era of smartphones and computers, there’s something special about the preparation: studying the words, writing them over and over, researching languages of origin and definitions.

“Spelling will help you later in life and through your future,” Laura said. “It’s a part of life to learn how to spell.”

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