Right, 8-year old Shaheer Imam holds his Baltimore Spelling Bee 1st place trophy. The 3rd grade Al-Rahmah student will compete in the Scripps National Spelling Bee this summer. His sister Danyah (left) will help him train. Photo courtesy of the Imam family.
Danyah Imam and her little brother Shaheer have quite a few things in common.
The both attend Baltimore’s Al-Rahmah School, love to read mystery books, love learning about sea life, and they both enjoy deconstructing the occasional unfamiliar lexeme.
In other words, they are really good spellers.
So good, in fact, that Danyah, in 5th grade – she won Al-Rahmah’s Bee last year -- and Shaheer, in 3rd grade, tied for first place at last month’s Al-Rahmah’s spelling bee, beating even the top performing 8th grade competitors.
The dual win last month meant that both Imam siblings would represent Al-Rahmah School at the county wide Baltimore Bee on March 17, 2012 at Towson State University. About 50 Baltimore County students ranging from 3rd grade through 8th grade participated. The winner would represent Baltimore County at the famed Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington DC, this year to be held May 30-31.
Besting most of the county’s top school age spellers in the one-mistake elimination spelling contest, Danyah was eliminated on her thirteenth word, making the top ten spellers. Shaheer, one of only three 8-year olds at the Baltimore Bee, took the top prize.
Now, big sister Danya is helping her little brother prepare for the national tournament, testing him from the voluminous Scripps word list, which Danyah says is “basically the entire dictionary.” The younger Imam will compete against 276 of the nation’s best school age spellers and the final rounds will be aired live on ESPN.
Asked to describe the experience spelling on stage, Shaheer said he visualizes the word.
“It’s like flipping through the [word] list in my mind. Sometimes I look at the judges, and sometimes I look up and its like I see the word up there … sometimes when I ask the language of origin then I see other parts and it comes together,”he explained. “Like puzzle pieces,” added his sister.
His classmates at Al-Rahmah school held a party for Shaheer after his win at the Baltimore Bee, and the Islamic Society of Baltimore (ISB) issued a community wide congratulatory announcement. Muslims outside of Baltimore are just as proud.
“[Shaheer] will represent all the Islamic schools [in the region] at the national [Scripps] spelling bee, and we are all behind him. It’s important that the community as a whole gets behind him and his family. I would even say that community members who are English language experts should step up and offer their help to coach Shaheer, I think it’s that important,” said Aisha Elahi, a vice-principal at Al-Huda School in College Park, Maryland.
Unlike many homeschoolers who took home the national spelling bee title and the $25,000 award money in previous years, Shaheer has to squeeze in time to memorize words after his daily routine. He gets up around 6 am to pray and get ready for school. After school he attends Qur’an class – he has memorized two juz of Qur’an while his sister has memorized seven juz – and then gets home for dinner around 6:30pm. After dinner he dives into his homework and school projects, and then he and his sister prepare for the national spelling bee. He gets to bed somewhere between 10 and 11pm.
Father Qaiser Imam is grateful for Al-Rahmah School – the only school his children know – and he stresses that parents “need to spend time working with their children”. Brother Qaiser and his wife decided early on that television was not going to have a central role in their household – but there are some exceptions.
Asked if she watched any movies, Danyah admits she did see “Spellbound”.