Amber Robinson is a student of the game.
She watches tape, has rivals, and has ranked among the best in her craft in South Florida for years, thanks to a combination of natural talent and hard work.
So last year, when the girl nicknamed after the protagonist of a spelling bee movie took second in the Miami-Dade battle of words to – gasp – a sixth-grader a year behind her, she vowed to return a victor.
On Wednesday, Amber made good on that mission, beating out more than 70 other middle school competitors in a countywide spelling competition to snatch first place in all of Miami-Dade and Monroe counties. Her reward is a trip for two to Washington, D.C., where she will — like Akeelah the Bee — compete in the nationally televised Scripps National Spelling Bee.
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“When I was a little kid I used to watch Akeelah, and the security guards at my school call me Akeelah,” she said. “This has actually been my dream since I was younger.”
Last year, she was so close, but was felled by “coadjutor.” This year, she’d win it all with “vestibule,” spelling out each letter with an imaginary pen on her hand as if it were a blank sheet of paper.
Amber — who nearly stumbled again on the word “piebald” — shook her fists in celebration and then hurried off the stage at Jungle Island and into her mother’s arms, giving her a tight hug on her tippie toes and crying into her shoulder. Afterward, the 14-year-old eighth-grader said she was motivated to win by the memory of her friend Arin Tucker, a fellow Herbert Ammons student who died tragically this month, and in honor of her late “Auntie Nicole.”
American Airlines will provide the travel to Washington for Amber and her mother, Mildreca Robinson, who before the competition told her daughter “to stay positive and no matter what the outcome is she’s a winner. She’s worked hard for years.”
Taking second and third in the middle school competition: Mia Taylor of Mater Academy Charter Middle, and Angelo Gachette of Holy Cross Lutheran Christian Day School.
In the elementary school competition, Oscar Torres of South Pointe Elementary took first place over runner-up Daniel Jackson of North Beach Elementary and third-place finisher Rio Cosimini of Ludlam Elementary.
The students each outlasted nearly 200 total competitors, including fields of 25 elementary and middle school finalists who participated in the oral contest. All who competed won spelling bees in their individual schools to make it to Wednesday’s event.
The Miami Herald has held spelling bees in South Florida for the last 74 years. The event this year was sponsored by Burger King Worldwide Inc.
Many students who competed studied for hours, going over vocabulary lists and hitting websites marketed to spelling bee enthusiasts. Amber said she even watched past Scripps spelling bees to help study.
The competition was at times tense, with misspellings causing some contestants to bury their faces in their parents’ shoulders and seek consolation in the foyer. At two points, the judges stopped the event to replay the tape and make sure they’d ruled correctly on words.
Skill and memory was important. But so too was fortune.
Gulliver’s Anastasia Pérez-Ternent, 13, studied night and day for weeks from a list of words but was thrown by the ever-so-tricky “knish.” The next contestant received the word “teriyaki.”
“Maybe just a little bit of bad luck,” Anastasia said, proud to have made the final 25 contestants. “Everyone gets a chance. It’s whoever gets the luck of the draw.”
Amber also acknowledged that there’s an element of chance to winning. For instance, she’d just read an article in a language arts class that included the word “vestibule.”
Perhaps she’ll take a little of that luck with her to the Scripps National Spelling Bee in May.