BETHESDA – Jiming “J.J.” Chen Jr. is a 10-year-old who likes to recite.
He’ll happily reel off more than 50 digits of pi and the winners of the 11 previous national spelling bee champions without even been asked.
J.J. came close to adding his name to that list.
The fifth grader at Bradley Hills Elementary School made it into the finals of last week’s Scripps National Spelling Bee.
Of the 11 million children across the United States who participated in their school’s spelling bee, only 285 of them spelled their words correctly enough times to make it to the championships held in Washington, D.C. May 25 and 26. The top 45 went on to the finals.
J.J., who has played piano for seven years, violin for a few years and competes on the U-11 Bethesda soccer club, participated in his first spelling bee less than six months ago.
He didn’t even win, placing second.
But the winner, fifth grader Vonn Russell, chose not to move on in the competition and J.J. ended up representing his school in the regional finals
He took first place and was crowned Montgomery County’s best speller, enabling him to move on.
Spelling “is something I love,” he said. “I just memorize, just read through it a lot and it comes out of your mouth.”
His mother, Shasha Chen, remembers her son correctly spelling the word “transportation” at the age of three.
J.J. breaks down words to their origin, learns the definition, suffixes and prefixes before he slowly and deliberately spells it, often visualizing the word by using his finger to write the word on his hand.
He doesn’t focus on the letters as much as the whole word and studies with his father, James, using a dictionary of root words.
The best thing to do is “learn the roots of words, ask questions and don’t pressure yourself,” he said.
When he felt pressure under the television lights, he took a deep breath.
The first time moderator Jacques Bailley asked him to spell a word, J.J. verbally teased him by responding with the words to Adele’s song, “Hello.”
When Bailley replied, “hello,” J.J. said, “It’s me.”
If he had missed the word, J.J. said he was ready to use another line from that song: “At least I can say that I’ve tried.”
But he got it right and soon moved onto the finals, where in the first round he was asked to spell “scialytic.”
The second vowel threw him off.
“My instincts told me ‘o’ and then another instinct told me ‘a’ but the other [incorrect] instinct was stronger,” J.J. said as he explained how close he was to spelling his word correctly.
When asked why he thought more children aren’t into spelling competitions, J.J. said, “Maybe they don’t like to hear the sound of the bell,” telling them they made a mistake and they were out of the competition.
J.J. enjoyed meeting the other spellers but the bee wasn’t all fun, he said.
There was a lot of down time, about 20 minutes between each of his words, and he found himself eager for the show’s commercials, where the contestants high fived each other.
Making it to the bee enabled him to appear on a seven minute segment of “Good Morning Washington,” where he asked the three hosts to spell words.
J.J. has only lived in Bethesda a year, after moving here from Orlando, Fla.
He said he hopes to be accepted into the Takoma Park Middle School’s math, science and computer science magnet program.
His bio on the spelling bee website describes him as someone who “has always been curious about how things work and passionate about deeply exploring the world of science.”
J.J.’s goal is to be an inventor and scientist and “hopes to tackle incurable disease and help make human lives longer and healthier.”
He can solve the Rubik’s Cube in 31 seconds and loves to read. His current favorite author is Rick Riordan, who writes the famous Percy Jackson and the Olympians series.
The fifth-grader didn’t expect to make it to the finals but now he’s determined to try again.
“I’m happy, because I have three more years” of eligibility,” he said.