Spelling is in genes of Stuart Hall spelling whiz

When it comes to spelling, Robert Cerise insists he has a weakness.

“I always want to double consonants when I’m spelling words I’m unfamiliar with,” said Robert, a Stuart Hall seventh grader whose favorite subject is history.

In Robert’s case, this must not be too much of a weak link.

Last March, Robert spelled his 33rd word – “affability” – in the final round of the 25th Annual New Orleans Spelling Bee at Xavier University, beating out more than 200 fifth through eighth graders. He will represent the New Orleans area at the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington D.C., May 28-30.

“If you don’t spend years studying the dictionary there’s no sense in studying it at the last second,” said Robert of his calm and measured approach to spelling contests.

To prepare for the regional bee, Robert wrote out the 1,500 words provided by contest organizers and had his parents and teachers call them out to him.

“I would make a list of the ones I got wrong,” he said.

In the weeks leading up to the national bee, Amy Rini, Robert’s Stuart Hall spelling coach and language arts teacher, placed potential spelling bee words in baskets around campus. Students were encouraged to draw words from the baskets and challenge Robert to spell them when they passed him in the hallway.

“The system we have kind of works,” Robert said. “In the (national) bee you have one written round and then two oral rounds; they take the scores from that to see if you qualify to move on.”

This year’s bee features a new hurdle: contestants will have to correctly define 12 words in the written round of competition. To hone his spelling and definition skills, Robert is poring over Greek and Latin prefixes and suffixes.

“It’s mostly just studying the words and doing mock bees in Ms. Rini’s class,” he said. “I read a lot – I guess that helps quite a bit. I think I’m a visual learner, so reading over the lists helps me learn the words the most.”

In addition to his parents, who drill him most evenings, Robert has another special person calling out words to him during his commutes to and from school: his brother Andrew, a Jesuit freshman, who won the regional spelling bee in 2009 as a Stuart Hall fifth grader.

Amazingly, this year marks the third time in the past six years Stuart Hall has sent one of its students to the national bee, with Nicolas Bennett beginning the run in 2007. Catholic school domination in spelling also includes two sisters who qualified for the national bee while students at St. Benilde – Melinda and Jessica Davis, who competed in 2010 and 2012, respectively.

For Robert, winning the regional spelling bee was part of an academic “Triple Crown” of sorts in school year 2012-13. Last December, he was part of the Stuart Hall team that placed first in Academy of Our Lady’s Academic Games Tournament; and in April, he co-captained the team that won the elementary school quiz bowl tournament organized by Brother Martin and St. Mary’s Dominican high schools.

Busy Robert, a parishioner of St. Pius X who will attend Jesuit in the fall, also was a member of Stuart Hall’s cross country and tennis teams.
Despite his recent successes, Robert is trying to keep his hopes of making the final round of 50 spellers in check.

“I don’t exactly expect to make it to the final rounds – those are for the kids who have studied the dictionary for a long, long time, and I haven’t done that,” he said. “But I think I’ll do fairly well.”

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