Boy spells his way to regional bee

Zain Kabeer of Oak Hall School mulls over the word 'joule' during the spelling bee Thursday. Kabeer won the bee with the word 'rhizome.'

Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Friday, February 1, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 31, 2008 at 11:13 p.m.

After successfully spelling the winning word of the 2008 Alachua District Spelling Bee on Thursday, 11-year-old Zain Kabeer returned to his seat, shrugged his shoulders and plainly admitted, "I've never even heard of that."

In fact, when the competition's emcee first pronounced the word, "rhizome" (a continuously growing horizontal stem), Kabeer - and most of the adult audience - appeared stumped.

"But when she told me it has a Greek origin, I knew it had to be 'rh,'" he said.

Kabeer, a fifth-grader at Oak Hall School, will represent the Alachua County School District in the Florida Times Union Regional Spelling Bee in Jacksonville on Feb. 23. From there, he has the opportunity to move on to the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C.

Thursday's competition, which pitted about 40 of the county's best middle-school spellers against each other, lasted for 10 toe-tapping, lip-biting rounds. With the exception of a few groans from the audience and some sniffles from eliminated opponents, a packed Kirby-Smith boardroom remained hushed for 90 minutes as students stood on their tippy toes to tackle mouthfuls like "aborigines" and "parallelogram."

Abbey Patterson of Howard Bishop School came in second after "tracheotomy" cut her out of the competition. Dakota Runnels of St. Patrick Interparish School earned third place after jumbling up "frankincense."

"I study every night," Kabeer said of his victorious strategy. Although he's obviously got a knack for words, he said he prefers numbers. "Math is my best subject."

To qualify, each of the participants won first at their respective school bees.

"A good vocabulary helps you across the board," said Dawn Newell, secondary reading and language arts curriculum specialist for the Alachua County School District.

Instead of just memorizing lists of words, competing students are encouraged to study the history, entomology, prefix, suffix and root of words.

Twelve-year-old Akshaya Nataraj of Millhopper Montessori Elementary said she studies vocabulary flash cards at least 15 minutes every day to prepare for competitions, but mainly, to do better in school.

"I always want to be able to 'wow' people," she said.

Vanessa Garcia can be reached at 352-338-3166 or

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