Education

The number 13 doesn’t scare this super speller

Simone Kaplan, 11, pages through a book of words in her study on Sunday, May 21, 2017. Simone, a student at St. Bonaventure Catholic School in Davie, is headed to the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C.
Simone Kaplan, 11, pages through a book of words in her study on Sunday, May 21, 2017. Simone, a student at St. Bonaventure Catholic School in Davie, is headed to the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. pfarrell@miamiherald.com

Simone Kaplan may be only 11, but she knows more words than most adults.

On the top of her spelling list these days: triskaidekaphobia, fear of the number 13.

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Simone Kaplan, 11, has a post-it with the word “triskaidekaphobia” attached to her computer as she studies on Sunday, May 21, 2017. Simone is headed to the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., where she will be wearing the number 13, and triskaidekaphobia means the extreme superstition regarding the number 13. Simone is a student at St. Bonaventure Catholic School in Davie. PATRICK FARRELL pfarrell@miamiherald.com

The reason: Simone happens to be speller No. 13 in the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., a three-day contest of 291 spellers ranging from 6 to 15 years old that begins Tuesday and will be aired on ESPN on Wednesday and Thursday.

“No matter what number I am, it’s about doing my best,” said the fifth-grader at St. Bonaventure School, a Catholic school in Davie. “Plus, Dan Marino was #13 and he was one of the best football players ever.”

Simone, small in stature and big in personality, has always had an interest in reading and writing. She has read the entire “Harry Potter” series and favors fantasy and science fiction.

“I know this is hard work, but I remind myself that it will be worth it in the end,” said Simone, one of 35 11-year-olds in the competition.

Simone, who dreams of becoming an author, bested more than 200 students from across Broward County to garner her spot in the national competition. Last year, her first year competing in the Broward Bee, she finished in seventh place, her mom said.

Her championship word in this year’s Bee: Dorado, a constellation in the southern sky. She cracked a smile; she knew how to spell it because of the furniture store, El Dorado.

“That was an easy one,” she said. “There were some more challenging ones.” (The word immediately before Dorado was ursine, relating to or resembling bears.)

Though she is on the younger end of participants in the national Bee, her parents say age is just a number.

“Simone has quite a vocabulary for a fifth-grader,” said her dad, Mitch, 48, who owns an apparel manufacturing company.

Simone declares: “I don’t think age is related to talent.”

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Simone Kaplan, 11, wearing her bee adorned shoes on Sunday, May 21, 2017, is headed to the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. Simone is a student at St. Bonaventure Catholic School in Davie. PATRICK FARRELL pfarrell@miamiherald.com

She loves dressing for the occasion, wearing her black-and-yellow bumblebee shoes and a bee clip in her hair.

Simone is the oldest of the Kaplans’ two children. Parents Alana, originally from British Guiana, and Mitch, from New York, moved to South Florida from New York when Simone was 2 because “I couldn’t take the weather,” Alana said. Simone’s little sister, Maya, lovingly calls her sister a “brainiac.”

Alana Kaplan, 41, a stay-at-home mom, said her oldest daughter started reading when she was 19 months old. She said she used to read to her in the high-chair.

“She doesn’t get it from me,” she quips.

At school, Simone is a standout, the school’s resource teacher Stella DiBattista said. Besides her academic achievements, Simone is a member of the school’s award-winning Children’s Chorale, which performs liturgical, traditional and contemporary choral music.

“Simone is just a wealth of knowledge,” DiBattista said. “She really is a wordsmith.”

Last week, the 64 fifth-graders threw a send-off party during lunch with banners, balloons (No. 13 emblazoned on them) and cupcakes. Teachers wrote words of encouragement on a bumblebee card that said, “Bee yourself.”

“We want her to enjoy this experience,” DiBattista said.

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Simone Kaplan, 11, does some studying on Sunday, May 21, 2017. Simone is headed to the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. Simone is a student at St. Bonaventure Catholic School in Davie. PATRICK FARRELL pfarrell@miamiherald.com

Getting ready for the Bee has been part of the fun, Simone said. She has been working with Mark Schermeister, who has been a longtime judge for the Miami Herald Spelling Bee after his 17-year-old daughter Christal competed in the national Bee in 2012 and 2013.

Schermeister said Simone “is the total package,” with both natural talent and strong work ethic. Christal, who came in 10th place in 2013, has also been tutoring her on taking words step-by-step.

One of Simone’s favorite tips: having a suitcase of words and a toolbox for a word’s etymology. The suitcase is full of words she has memorized; the toolbox is for breaking down the word, based on its origins.

“Like if a word is Greek you use ph,” Simone said. “There is no f in Greek.”

Simone studies solo most of the time. She says she is a visual learner, relying on her iPad or computer. Her coach, Schermeister, says she will likely have 100,000 words stored in her brain by the time of the Bee.

Simone often sits in her study at her family’s home — a room with a desk, bookcase and sculptures made out of Legos — working on words on the big screen. On a recent Sunday, Simone went to the Scripps website, spellingbee.com, and took a quiz. She didn’t hesitate as the announcer tossed out words: Tableau. Tamanoir. Tandoori.

She got all 25 right.

She said those are words she’s been memorizing because they are “squirrel words.”

“Because you can’t crack them phonetically,” she said, another tip from Christal.

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Simone Kaplan, 11, (center), with her mother, Alana, father, Mitch, and 9 year-old sister, Maya, at their Davie home on Sunday, May 21, 2017. Simone, a student at St. Bonaventure Catholic School in Davie, is headed to the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. PATRICK FARRELL pfarrell@miamiherald.com

She often sits with her dad to review words. He randomly picks what he thinks are difficult ones, struggling to pronounce them. He said neither he nor his wife ever spelled.

“She teaches me,” he said.

Simone spells them with ease and laughs at her dad. Spelling has brought the family closer because they’ve spent more time at home studying than going out, Alana said.

Simone already considers herself a winner.

“I am in this for the experience,” she said. “I am not in it for the competition.”

Added her mother: “In my opinion, I think we have already won.”

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