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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 28, 2006

Catching her second wind, she hopes for a lucky spell

By Beverly Creamer
Advertiser Education Writer

Jasmine Kaneshiro, 14, returning to the National Spelling Bee this week, has brushed up on the roots of words and their meanings.

DEBORAH BOOKER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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With her new digital camera and a T-shirt from last year's National Spelling Bee emblazoned with "WORD" tucked in her luggage, 14-year-old Jasmine Kaneshiro and her family are headed to Washington, D.C., this weekend and another shot at glory.

The Hawai'i statewide spelling bee champ for two years in a row, Jasmine has packed up her word lists and her confidence to confront the other 282 spelling champs from across the country for a spot on the ESPN telecast of the final rounds, a new Bee T-shirt, and a chance to say you outspelled the best of the rest in the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee on Wednesday.

"The top 10 kids, they dedicate their lives to this," said her dad, Dean Kaneshiro, the math coach at Ka'imiloa School in 'Ewa Beach.

"I told Jas I know she has the ability, but 'How much do you want to put into it?' We got to hear the top 10 kids speak at the banquet last year and they all talked about sacrificing everything to do this. In some states they can come in at third grade and it's like a full-time job. They spend all year studying and they hire coaches, and I told Jas, 'All you've got is me, that's it. No French coach. No Greek tutor. No Latin tutor.' "

Nevertheless, the Kaneshiros have plugged spelling into every day of the family's life for the past year. Jasmine took a week's break after last year's national bee, then started studying with her dad every day by going over lists of words posted by the national bee, words used in SAT testing, and other word lists they found on the Internet.

Her dad estimates they've studied at least 30,000 words, working half an hour a day on average.

"At the nationals they tell you that the word list is the Merriam Webster Third New International Dictionary, with 475,000 words," he said. "There are kids there who have gone through it page by page."

Renee Kaneshiro said her daughter has been fascinated by words ever since she was a toddler, memorizing books that her parents read to her.

Jasmine's mom recalled: "At 2 years old people thought she could read, but she wasn't. She was memorizing whole books and she'd turn the pages at the right time."

Before each round, Jasmine says a silent prayer and focuses on listening carefully to the word.

Just the hubbub of cameras and confusion in the ballroom will be more familiar this time around, said her mom, a kindergarten and first-grade teacher at the same school as her husband.

"It's kind of overwhelming," she said, while describing herself as the "cheerleader" for the family. "She was kind of taken aback that it was so humongous. Her goal this year is to get to the TV round."

The Kaneshiros have changed their technique this year, going from sheer rote memorization to a more comprehensive look at the roots of words and their meanings.

"I told her if you memorize the words on the list, at the end all you know is 4,000 words," said her dad. "But if you take the time to look at the definitions and roots, you would know a lot more than the 4,000 or 5,000 words. We're hoping that paying more attention to the roots, origins and definitions will be good enough to get into the second day of the competition."

But their expectations are realistic. The Kaneshiros know that some of the bee champions have been at this game for years and that they consider it virtually their lifework.

"If she makes the TV round, we'll all be happy," said Jasmine's dad, "and if she doesn't, well, she did the best she could.

"They told us when you get to the TV round, everyone gets a shirt. So not everyone is gunning for the top. If you get the shirt that becomes the trophy a lot of kids are after."

Almost as important for Jasmine is getting to see the pandas at the National Zoo, he said.

Plus, with grandparents Masa and Toshi Ishizaki along for the trip, as well as her English teacher, Debra Tenney, Jasmine feels tremendous support.

Jasmine herself has been distracted by final exams at Hawai'i Baptist Academy, where she's an eighth-grader. This is the last year she can compete in the national contest sponsored by Scripps Howard newspapers and by newspapers all across the country, including The Honolulu Advertiser.

"This year I have added pressure because I want to do at least as well as last year, or better," said Jasmine. "It would be kind of bad if I went twice and did worse the second time."

Last year she fell in Round 3 but had advanced further than any other previous Hawai'i contestant since Matthew Won, an Iolani School eighth-grader at the time, tied for seventh place in the 2001 Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee.

Having succumbed to the word "hominivorous," she says now that she thinks she may have misheard it. She didn't know what it meant at the time, but now knows it means "eating humans."

"I think I looked at it maybe once," she recalled. "It's kind of an easy word but I kind of misheard the pronouncer."

The family has spent endless hours in bookstores, including hanging out at midnight at Borders for the release of two of the Harry Potter books.

"Then we'd stay in the store for an hour and she'd be reading," said her mom.

While reading is Jasmine's passion, so is community service as part of the National Junior Honor Society at school. The group did a book drive and gave hundreds of books it collected to the children at Shriners Hospital. They also raised money to contribute to the Compassion Children's Foundation by selling ice-cream floats at school.

"I like doing that kind of stuff," said Jasmine. "I was thinking of doing evangelical work or relief work to help people."

But long before she gets to that part of her life, she has at least one more final list of tough words to memorize before Wednesday.

There are 250 of them and she'll have them with her on the plane and before the competition.

"There are about 17 words that I'm getting consistently wrong that I have to work on," she said. "My dad will test me on the list and I have to keep doing that until I get it right."

Reach Beverly Creamer at bcreamer@honoluluadvertiser.com.

Correction: Matthew Won, an Iolani School eighth-grader at the time, tied for seventh place in the 2001 Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee. That is the highest finish for any Hawai'i contestant at the national bee. A previous version of this story contained incorrect information