April 2016, News & Features

SAU family has a real-life Akeelah

Many of us have seen “Akeelah and the Bee,” the movie about an African-American girl from Los Angeles who participates in the Scripps National Spelling Bee. How many know that Saint Augustine’s University has its own version of that movie? We can call it, “Bettie and the Bee.”

Bettie Closs is the daughter of Dr. Willie Closs, the university’s vice president of finance. Just like the star of that movie, Bettie is going to the Scripps National Spelling Bee. The 12-year-old will be travelling to Washington to compete in the prestigious event in May.

A seventh grader at Lucas Middle School, Bettie won the right to compete in the national bee by winning the 2016 Scripps Regional Spelling Bee, which was held at Duke University on March 19. She won by spelling the word “catechistic.”

“I was elated – yay! – but then I thought, ‘I’ve got to go to the nationals again to try to win that.’ ”

It will be the third trip to the national bee for Bettie. She also went in 2014 and 2015. Her best finish was 49th – not bad, when you consider that she was competing against 285 other contestants who had themselves won local bees involving almost 11 million students nationwide.  Still, she hopes to do much better this year.

Unlike in the movie, in which the main character overcame family obstacles, feuds with coaches and racist opposition, Bettie has not had a lot of drama surrounding her quest to be national spelling champion. In fact, she makes the whole thing seem rather routine.

“I don’t want this to sound bad,” she said, “but [winning the regional] was kind of easy because I already had won twice before and so I knew the strategies and how to train.”

Bettie’s strategies include using online resources that teach students how approach spelling difficult words.

“You learn etymological patterns, for instance Greek words don’t have Fs and Spanish words don’t have Ks – things like that,” Bettie said.

Bettie says her dad has been helpful in terms of coaching, for instance getting access to the online resources. “He has been an all-around kind of helper,” she said.

Has she seen the movie? “Three or four times,” Bettie said. “Some of my friends even call me Akeelah. I love it!”

Bettie does have similarities with Akeelah – she is showing the world what an African-American girl can do. When she first won the spelling bee in 2014, she was the first African American to ever win. The second time she won the spelling bee in 2015, she was the first person to ever win more than once.

And there is a bit of drama in her story, too, though it is more like a family feud. The 58 other contestants she defeated at the March 19 regional bee included her sister, Hanna, who is 10 and attends Little River Elementary School.

Hanna placed second in the regional spelling bee. The bee lasted for 18 rounds. It was sister against sister by the 15th round.

“I am so proud of his two intelligent daughters for achieving these goals,” Dr. Closs said.

Hanna said she was happy with second place but added, “Now I have to help my sister win.”

 —  Christian Roberson