Southampton 8th-grader in national spelling bee

Published 9:29 am Saturday, June 12, 2010

COURTLAND—Walter Francis has been through a lot.

The eighth-grader from Southampton Middle School has been to three spelling bees this year, the first at SMS, followed by a regional bee in Norfolk in February, and the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., last week.

He’s studied thousands of words during that time, and spent many hours studying both at school with teacher Jane Stephenson and at home.

So perhaps it shouldn’t be too surprising to hear what Walter—a quiet, reserved 14-year-old from Capron—had to say when asked Wednesday how he feels about the whole experience.

“Words escape me.”

His mother, Capron Elementary School teacher Allison Francis, smiled and said she also found it a challenge to find the right terms to describe watching her son succeed at such a high level.

“Words can’t describe how proud you can be of that little boy,” she said. “I’m very proud of him. Just standing up in front of all of those lights and spelling in front of all of those people, that’s a task in itself.”

Walter was one of 274 spellers at the national bee. He spelled two words correctly on stage at the event, but fell just short of advancing to the second round of 48.

“He missed it by five points,” Allison Francis said. “He was very hard on himself. The day of the bee, he didn’t want to talk about it. He was upset because he felt that he let Ms. Stephenson down and he was embarrassed.”

Stephenson said nothing could be further from the truth.

“He hasn’t let anybody down,” Stephenson said. “We are all so proud of him. Students like him are the reason I stay in teaching. They make it a pleasure to stay in teaching. It was so much fun working toward that goal.”

Walter said he first became interested in spelling in the sixth grade, when Stephenson asked him to participate.

“I just decided that I would try it,” Walter said.

Although he won’t be able to do the spelling bee next year — the cutoff is eighth grade — Walter said he plans to continue studying words and has his sights on making a career out of it.

“I’m thinking of majoring in literature,” Walter said. “Of course, that’s news to my mother. I think I want to teach at middle school or high school.”

And he had some parting advice for other kids who are thinking of getting into the spelling bee in the future.

“Study,” he said. “A lot. More than I did.”