Even among her older siblings, Sterling Riddick has always been looked upon to provide guidance in spelling in her family.
Someone asks her to spell a word and Sterling responds with the correct spelling.
Beginning at 10 a.m. Feb 24 at Wachovia Playhouse in Charlotte, the 13-year-old Hamlet Middle School eighth-grader will be spelling for herself in the annual Charlotte Observer Regional Spelling Bee. A three-time Richmond County champion, Sterling knows what’s at stake: victory Charlotte will put her on a trip to Washington D.C. for a spot in the national spelling bee and a chance to win $30,000.
Twice before, the competition in Charlotte has gotten the best of her, and it’s left an awful aftertaste.
“The thing about me is I don’t like losing,” Sterling said during a recent visit to The Daily Journal. “So getting there, getting that far, then being like, ‘what, I’m supposed to be done?’”
Sterling said when teacher Melissa Garner asked for volunteers for the class spelling bee earlier this school year, the memories of early defeats got the best of her.
“I didn’t even think about it,” said Sterling, who also won the county bee in fifth and seventh grades along with her win on Feb. 5.
When she raised her hand, four others dropped theirs to concede defeat.
One could argue that Sterling sets herself for a challenge —and it’s not only from the words.
“She has horrible stage fright,” said her mother, Deb Roberts.
Sterling laughed it off somewhat anxiously but agreed she gets nervous when on stage.
“I have a bad nervous habit,” she said.
So she wears bands and bracelets and pulls at them, longing for security of a crowd when she’s front and center.
On the first sudden death, championship round of this year’s county spelling bee, the word given to Sterling was curriculum.
“C-i,” she began, incorrectly.
“When I missed curriculum, I instantly looked back at my librarian” Karen Brewer in the audience, Sterling said. “She’s sitting there, laughing. I guess she thought I had it. In my head, I’m going through every book I’ve ever read” searching for where she’s seen the word.
She didn’t come up with it, but the only other competitor after four rounds was Alaina Fields, from West Rockingham Elementary School. The two went another few rounds before Alaina missed her word for a second time and Sterling correctly spelled “guitar.”
It was a word with which she is intimately familiar. Her uncle, Ken Riddick, has a room full of guitars in his home.
“That’s my favorite room to be in when I go over there,” Sterling said. “I’ve always wanted to learn how to play guitar.”
In Charlotte, Sterling said “it’s going to take a lot of guts” to beat out 27 other competitors. It’s televised. It’s more formal than local spelling bees, and the audience is larger.
She’ll be accompanied by her parents, Larry and Deb Roberts.
“It’s horrible, absolutely horrible,” Deb Roberts said of the intensity of the competition and the fear and pride of watching her daughter compete.
The family does a nice job of putting the contest, win or lose, into perspective.
“I make her tell me whether or not she did the best she could do,” her mother said. “If she’s comfortable with her performance, then we’re good.”
Meanwhile, all three take a “practice when possible” approach. Unlike other contestants, Sterling doesn’t live, eat and breathe spelling bee competition. She’s involved with student government, multiple choir groups, Battle of the Books and the school’s debate club.
“The downfall is that I cannot sing on stage,” Sterling said, “which is weird.”
But that’s alright — she only has to spell each word one letter at a time.