Sunday, March 20, 2011

Deaf teen makes it into regional spelling bee in California

From the San Francisco Chronicle:

Drake Palmer (pictured) was waiting for his next spelling word, pencil poised over paper, when he heard the beeping of a dead battery in his ear.

He was just 10 words into the semifinal round of the Bay Area's regional spelling competition, a critical stop on the road to the renowned Scripps National Spelling Bee.

"Oh, no," he thought. "Not now."

The hearing aid in his right ear was silent, and he didn't have a backup battery.

He still had 40 words to go - complicated, tricky words he wouldn't be able to spell if he couldn't hear them.

"That (the battery) should go out in the spelling bee, the odds were not good," the 14-year-old said later. Since he was born, Drake has suffered severe loss in the upper frequencies and moderate loss in the lower. Some sounds are hard for him to hear even with the hearing aids.

With only his left hearing aid working, the Piedmont Middle School eighth-grader kept going.

While he couldn't hear all the sounds, he still recognized the words, which came off his 1,500-word study list. He said his brain filled in the missing sounds mouthed by the bee's pronouncer for the written test.

At a break halfway through the semifinals, his parents sent a replacement battery into the testing room.

"I was panicked for him," said Domini Mostofi, director of retail sales and new business development at The Chronicle, which sponsors the regional bee. "He just took it in stride. I didn't have an nth degree of that composure when I was a kid."

Drake's score in the semifinal round? Perfect.

Out of 198 spellers, he was one of nine who didn't misspell one word.

Drake will head to the regional final Saturday at San Francisco's Pier 39 with 51 other top elementary and middle school spellers from seven Bay Area counties. Unlike the qualifying competition, Saturday's event will require contestants to spell words aloud.

The winner of the competition will head to Washington, D.C., for the nationally televised Scripps National Spelling Bee on June 1 and 2. That winner receives $10,000 and typically gets to meet the president.

"It has developed pretty much all of the trappings of youth sports except for the multimillion-dollar contract at the end," said Stan Bunger, KCBS morning anchor and the official pronouncer at the regional final.

Bunger has been carefully enunciating the regional bee spelling words for more than 10 years. He also did a few stints in the 1980s. He can't remember seeing a hearing-impaired local competitor before.

At the nationals, it's not as unusual. Each year hearing-impaired competitors use hearing aids as well as FM receivers tuned to a microphone worn by the pronouncer.

One year, in the late 1990s, the competition had a completely deaf speller, said national bee Director Paige Kimble.

The child used an American Sign Language interpreter who would either sign the word (not the spelling) or the definition if there wasn't a sign for it. Malaria, for example, was signed as "mosquito" and "illness."

The boy made it to the quarterfinals, Kimble said.

This year, 225 competitors will make it to nationals, a contest that includes three preliminary rounds, one semifinal and a championship final round.

Drake is realistic about his chances at the bee, knowing the long odds have nothing to do with his hearing.

The teen knows he'll face serious competitors, children his mom, Cari Robnett, calls "semi-professionals."

He only recently started studying etymology, or word origin. He doesn't have a spelling coach. He studies only about 45 minutes a day, with a $130 dictionary and a stack of study words on small white cards.

At the regionals, Drake will face kids like Surya Auroprem, the little brother of Ramya Auroprem, the sixth national runner-up in 2009.

"I'm so proud of his courage," Robnett said, adding that a lot of people don't understand that the hearing aids don't make him hear perfectly. The family watches movies with the subtitles.

"People think hearing aids are like glasses," she said. "You put them on and see well."

The hearing aids and FM receiver "won't even bring him up to where everyone else is, but will give him a fighting chance," she said.

So, each day, with a stack of cards in her hands, she reads off words for Drake to spell as he sits at the kitchen counter.

Albuminuria. Legerdemain. Cirrhosis. Saprophagous. Weissnichtwo.


"It means 'I don't know where' in German," Drake said on a recent afternoon after spelling the word correctly. "It's a noun (for unknown or imaginary place) in English."

Welsh words are harder, Drake added.

Yet the Piedmont teen isn't too scared about missing a Welsh word, or any other word at the bee Saturday, which would mean instant elimination.

His life is full of homework, piano, guitar lessons, Boy Scout activities and video games. He loves math and science and thinks he might like to be an astrophysicist someday.

Spelling isn't everything.

"I'm probably not going to win, but if I study, I'll learn a lot of things I can use later in life," he said.

Still, he's bringing extra batteries.