Christopher Columbus pupil qualifies for Scripps National Spelling Bee


As a voracious reader, especially of the “Harry Potter” tomes, Nina McManus, 14, enjoys coming to understand literary techniques.

The eighth-grader at Christopher Columbus Charter School, 1242-46 S. 13th St., received a non-book-based yet nonetheless captivating example of irony March 9 at the West Philly-based School of the Future when her successful spelling of “degenerative,” meaning “leading to decline,” caused her to exult and judges to exalt her as the 19th Scripps Regional Spelling Bee winner. She will look to duplicate her letter levity at May’s national competition in Maryland.

“I had handled most of the others with little delay, and when I heard that one, I felt very good,” the Southwest Philadelphian said of the triumph-inducing word. “When I finished, I was really excited. I still am, actually.”

The term became her 26th correctly recited challenge and helped her to beat 62 other spellers representing area institutions, all conquerors of their facilities’ individual duels. As it derives from Latin, which, along with Greek, she deemed the easiest of her 14 studied languages, Nina needed no time to ponder it and garnered a dictionary, laptop and trophy for her diligence.

“She is an exceptional, well-rounded student, and we’re so proud of her,” seventh-grade teacher Bernadette Parker said.

The Northeast Philly resident and Pennsport native began prepping her Passyunk Square pupils last school year at the suggestion of Principal Rosemary Dougherty. Nina meshed Parker’s guidance with her own commitment as a seventh-grader to win her site’s chapter and advance to the regional final. As the school-based bee had learners mastering only English-based selections, the ambitious girl quickly needed to add foreign utterances and repeated the practice this year only with heightened confidence. Her mother, Paula McManus, aided her attraction to phonetics, and the teenager engrossed herself in addressing Spanish, German and Dutch terms, the hardest among her units.

“I really wanted to do well with them,” Nina, last year’s second runner-up after “isinglass,” a Dutch derivative referring to a gelatinous product of fish swim bladders and also to the mineral mica, stumped her.

Acquainted with some of the entrants through her initial experience, she felt a bit of pressure despite her preparation, which often involved two-hour evening sessions, because she assumed others would prove as talented and eager. As the day began, she had her beliefs confirmed.

“And along with knowing how good the other children are, I was aware that judges could ask any word from the dictionary, so I was hoping they would ask a few from the packet, too,” Nina, who has consistently ranked at the top of her class, said. “I just wanted to do well.”

Anyone familiar with the national event surely could quickly envision the precocious participants as they use every imaginable means to grasp their words, including seeking to hear languages of origin, alternate pronunciations and sentences containing the utterances. For Nina, the first element of that triad helped the most, as it enabled her to determine which posed declarations had silent letters and double consonants, among other characteristics.

“I was thrilled that they varied the picks,” the child, whose academic identity also includes a mix of interests thanks to a love of mathematics, science, reading and, of course, spelling, said. “That made it more interesting and challenging.”

With thoughts of surpassing last year’s efforts as partial motivation, Nina watched the number of challengers dwindle yet focused only on her tasks. She numbered “begonia,” an eponym honoring Michel Bégon, a French patron of science, and “tantalize,” a derivative of the Greek king Tantalus, whose afterlife punishment involved not being able to eat or drink items within his reach, as easier words and “pfeffernuss,” a biscuit often adorned with ground nuts and popular in Germany and the Netherlands, as a difficult one.
 “I loved watching her process the words,” Parker said. “It was really rewarding to see the care she took.”

That wherewithal intensified as she and Amir S. Lewis, an eighth-grader at West Oak Lane’s Gen. Louis Wagner Middle School, became the final fighters for spelling supremacy. The boy misspelled “lozenge” yet Nina could not capitalize and tripped up on “alacrity,” meaning “willingness.” When Amir then could not master “mossery,” a place where mosses grow, his female counterpart confidently spelled “cubit,” a unit of length, and “degenerative” to cause her matriarch to hold back tears of joy.

“I knew I had a very good chance to win, but to be the actual winner, wow, that was a welcome part of the day,” Nina said from her school, whose enrollees have joined with Parker in esteeming the youngster. “Even a few days later, I’m still overwhelmed and will love representing Christopher Columbus Charter School in two months.”

All of the winners will arrive in Oxon Hill, Md., May 26 to prepare for the competition that will open two days later at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center. Not quite two weeks after her regional revelry, she has given herself a little break from analyzing prefixes, suffixes and other common bugaboos but soon will set herself to steadying any nerves and readying her resolve for what she envisions as the most powerful test of her spelling might.

“Everyone will be just as prepared as me, so it will be much harder,” she said. “This might sound funny but if I make it far, I know I’ll be on the televised part of the competition. I want to win but if I don’t, at least it will be neat to be on television.”

As she reflects on her journey, Nina knows many of the words she has studied could become fixtures of her vernacular, so she has added a few to her vocabulary. In summing up how spelling has put her under its spell, she noted its ability to make her more worldly.

“If you can speak well, you can write well and speak well,” she said, “and I’m working on all three.”

Contact Staff Writer Joseph Myers at or ext. 124.