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Spelling Star Minds Her P's and Q's

Interview - Jody-Anne Maxwell

By Willa Reinhard / August 18, 1998



NEW YORK

Quick! Spell "chiaroscurist." Jody-Anne Maxwell of Kingston, Jamaica, did it in a snap on May 28. "Chiaroscurist" was the winning word at the 71st annual Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee held in Washington, and this seventh-grader has become known as a national champion ever since.

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How did she do it? One look at Jody-Anne's self-assured stance, and it is evident that she has been champion material long before the spelling bee made it official. "Not only was she calm, but she was very well-mannered and would say 'Excuse me sir, will you please use that word in a sentence,' " says student Renee Plummer whose family, also from Kingston, was among the many who watched the bee on TV.

Spelling bees are tremendously popular and always have been. Paige Kimble, director of the Scripps Howard Bee estimates that more than 25,000 schools and 10 million students take part in bees worldwide. The first Scripps bee was held in 1925 with only nine spellers and has expanded every year. Now more than 250 students - up to the age of 16 and not past the 8th grade - compete at the national level.

"Children who participate like a challenge and see the spelling bee as an opportunity to show off their spelling and language skills," Ms. Kimble explains.

Jody-Anne's advice to aspiring spellers is to take heed of two things. "The first step is you have to know you have talent, know you have brains, and know you are smart."

"The second thing is you cannot be shy. I think there was one time in my life when I was shy," she acknowledges then looks over at her sister Janice with a knowing smile. "I looked at my sister because I know she doesn't think so."

On Aug. 6 at a playground in Brooklyn's Prospect Park, Jody-Anne addressed an audience of about 200 of her peers and some younger than her with a perfect mixture of poise, enthusiasm, and humor. She stood gracefully beside city legislators and Basil Bryan, the consul general of Jamaica, encouraging the kids to aim high.

"I personally see potential in all of you," she gestured then asked, "How many smart people are here?" as all hands in the park reached up high.

The children responded with intrigue, and many of them rushed up afterward to meet her. "Was it hard work?" and "Did you get nervous?" were some of their questions as they reached to shake hands with this speller extraordinaire. Two little girls waiting in line to talk to Jody-Anne were even able to recall the winning word.

Jody-Anne's natural ease has its foundation in family. Her older sister, Janice, was national spelling champ nine years ago, and their parents, of course, played a very enthusiastic role in producing top-notch word aficionados. "We were both forced into it initially. Then we got to enjoy it," admits Janice. Their little sister has shown her own interest in following in the older sisters' steps. "But you have to be 10 for the competition. So we'll see then if she wants to," says Janice.

Great spelling, it seems, goes hand in hand with good study habits. An excellent student, Jody-Anne maintains a straight-A report card. When she's not studying her spelling words, she enjoys mystery novels, classical music, and volleyball.

Jody-Anne already has specific ideas about her future as well, citing corporate law as her career of choice. But city-council member Una Clarke, a fellow Jamaican and one of the hosts at Prospect Park, sets this "child wonder" at even higher heights, "Chief Justice," she says emphatically, "or maybe a future consul general of Jamaica."