Tanzina Vega: This is Lawrence Fishburne as Dr. Larabee in the heartwarming family film from 2006 Akeelah and the Bee.
Dr. Larabee: Spell prestidigitation.
Speaker 3: I'm sorry, sir, but this girl is only 11 and she was already one. Mr. Welch, what is this?
Dr. Larabee: Prestidigitaion, can you spell it?
Speaker 4: P-R-E-S-T-I-D-G-I-T-A-T-I-O-N. Prestidigitation.
Tanzina Vega: Back in 2006, when Keke Palmer was jump-roping and spelling her way into our hearts as the fictional Akeelah, there was so much that had not yet happened for Black girls. We'd not yet had a Black first lady. FLOTUS Obama gave us that in January '09. We'd not yet had a Black Disney princess, Tiana premiered in December of 2009. We'd not yet had a Black woman Vice President. VP Kamala Harris made this a reality earlier this year. We certainly did not yet have a real life brilliant basketball dribbling Black girl champion of the Scripps Spelling Bee, but now-
Speaker 5: Murraya. M-U-R-R-A-Y-A.
Speaker 6: That is correct.
Tanzina Vega: Two weeks ago, 14-year-old Zaila Avant-garde won the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee becoming the first African-American girl to do so. If there is one thing we can learn from all these firsts it's that firsts are rarely the only. It turns out there's a small but robust community of extraordinary Black girl spellers taking on the world one latin root at a time.
One tiny mighty champion lives right up the road from me right here in North Carolina. Here to talk with me about what it's like to compete in the Scripps National Spelling Bee is Cana Gerald of A. L. Stanback Middle in Durham, North Carolina, and her mother, Dr. Carressa Gerald, who is assistant professor of Environmental Earth and Geospatial Sciences at North Carolina Central University. Eagle pride, welcome to the show, to the Geralds.
Dr. Carressa Gerald: Thank you.
Cana Gerald: Thank you.
Dr. Carressa Gerald: Thank you for having us.
Tanzina Vega: Cana, I want start with you. What got you first involved in spelling bees?
Cana Gerald: I always loved reading and writing, and I also did a spelling bee in kindergarten, which I won, but it wasn't like a Scripp spelling bee. I think that's what really pushed me to go and continue going to spelling bees and to continue spelling and reading.
Tanzina Vega: Now, this year, were you in school in person?
Cana Gerald: I was not.
Tanzina Vega: You did all of this prep for the spelling bee remotely and at home?
Cana Gerald: Yes.
Tanzina Vega: What was that like? What did a day look like for you?
Cana Gerald: I would start off by going to school and then I would go and I would get my flashcard and my latin root cards. I'll turn on some music and then I'll just be in there studying and making sure I know all the words, all the definitions, all of the origins of speech and having my mom to the side of me beating off words from the spelling bee list and asking me how to spell the word or what the root of the word was or what the definition of the word is.
Tanzina Vega: What kind of music were you listening to?
Cana Gerald: I listen to K-pop.
I'd be jamming some BTS in the background [laughs] or some SuperM or something in the background.
Tanzina Vega: I love that. I'm completely into that. Cana, I have to say I smiled when I saw the picture that is on-- it's like the spelling bee winners photo that is on the middle school website, and poking out of the side is an adorable little head that looks like it's a younger sibling. Are you an older sibling?
Cana Gerald: Yes, I am the oldest of three. I have a little brother and a younger sister, and so yes, I am the oldest.
Tanzina Vega: Were they helpful or distracting when you were trying to study for the spelling bee?
Cana Gerald: A little bit of both. My brother, he would try to read them off and then he would get mad at me because he didn't pronounce the word correctly and I'd be like, "What is the word?" I'll ask him again and he'll be like, "No, no, no, no. You're saying it wrong." I'd be like, "I don't know what you're trying to say."
Tanzina Vega: Now, Professor Gerald, I want to draw you in here because oftentimes when exceptional young people are in the public eye, folks will sometimes assume, "Oh, it's really just the parents who are pushing." Mom, what has been your role in Cana's spelling success?
Dr. Carressa Gerald: I definitely would say that Cana has been proactive herself and really innately pushing herself and having those driving forces. I have only facilitated at this point. A lot of the words I honestly could not pronounce myself. If it was a science word, I remember autophagy and hemorrhage and some of those, but other than that, she was on her own. Anything that she needed, I tried to make sure she had. We went to the store and we bought all kinds of highlighters and gel pens and index cards, latin root word index cards with the different pronunciations, suffixes and prefixes, and all that stuff.
I took a medical terminology class long time ago at N.C. A&T, and so I remembered all that stuff and I said, "Wow, she probably needs that." I just brought all that stuff back into remembrance and said, "Hey, let me just fill her up and pour into that picture as much as possible so that she would be able to have those opportunities." Really, it's mostly her. I just make sure that whatever she's trying to do, she has everything or any resource that she needs to complete it.
Tanzina Vega: I love that. Cana, you made it to the Scripps National Spelling Bee after you won your regional bee and you made it all the way to 139th out of 209, which is a really big deal. How'd it feel for you?
Cana Gerald: I was very surprised. I didn't think I would be able to do something like this. I was also very nervous because there was a lot of pressure coming from learning different words that you maybe have never heard before or words that weren't even English. I was also proud of myself because I went to the national spelling bee, and again that was something that I never thought I would be able to do.
Tanzina Vega: Talk to me about what kinds of things you need to know in order to learn to spell. I think some folks feel like it's just memorization, but this sounds like it goes way beyond that.
Cana Gerald: I think you need to learn more about different languages. I'm not saying go and become fluent in a different language, but I am saying you should go and look at some of root words in the origins of where most of the root words come from. If you have something that is in Japanese and it's romanticized, you look at the root for that, and then you have something that's in Greek, you translate it, and then you look at the root for that. That's how you can figure out what the word means, or at least infer what the word means and tell how to use it in a sentence.
Tanzina Vega: I love just hearing you talk about the roots and then the connections in these ways. Did you learn any of this from your mom, who seems like she knows an awful lot about the world and how it works? She's got a pretty extraordinary academic record herself as a professor. Have you been as a young person and maybe really oldest in your family, watching your mom and thinking, "All right, I've got a big brain like that"?
Cana Gerald: It does definitely come from my mom. She has always been a role model to me. I've definitely learned a lot of these things from my mom.
Tanzina Vega: Dr. Gerald, how's that feeling for you as a teacher and as a researcher to hear your daughter speak in these ways?
Dr. Carressa Gerald: It's heartwarming, it's so heartfelt. I don't want to cry, [laughs] but I'm thankful for her, and I'm thankful that I could be in this field, in this area of expertise and be able to pass that along to her. It makes me feel so awesome. I am warm and fuzzy all inside.
Tanzina Vega: Cana, talk to me a little bit about the actual Scripps Spelling Bee, which is like an Olympics for spellers. What was the hardest part and the best part?
Cana Gerald: The hardest part was learning all of those words and learning different origins. Even though it may seem easy, it's a lot of different word parts. Learning the different origins of speech and learning about different words and the different definitions, it's very hard. Especially when a word has a homonym or a homophone, it's like, "Oh, man, I don't know what that is."
I think the best part of the spelling bee was meeting new people who also enjoy reading and words and learning about different words. You get to learn about different words from other cultures, and from other places, and now you have something to add to your vocabulary that you can use when you're just talking to someone.
Tanzina Vega: Do you talk like a spelling bee champion when you're just talking to your friends and listening to K-pop?
Cana Gerald: Not really, but I think sometimes I like to spring in big words to mess with them a little bit.
Tanzina Vega: I love that. You have friends back home who are maybe not spellers because I have to say there's different ways to be brilliant and different ways to be great. Folks may be brilliant at all kinds of things, but not be good spellers. You might have great friends who just are not good spellers, but were they rooting for you? Were they in your corner during all of this?
Cana Gerald: They definitely were. My one friend she took a picture of me on her TV, and she sent it to me. I was like, "Oh my goodness." She was like, "Yes." She was cheering me on.
Tanzina Vega: I love that. What are you doing these days since you're not practicing for the Scripps Spelling Bee?
Cana Gerald: I currently am in summer camps. I had a two-week summer camp in AgDiscovery that was hosted by Fresno State in California. I learned about strawberries and the different agriculture that naturally grows in California and how it contributes to their economy. I am now currently in a Step Up to STEM science camp. I'm learning about spectrometers and light, and how red absorbs the green light, and how blue and all that absorbs orange light. Also, I've been playing piano for a while, so I'm going to be continuing on that and making sure that I stay up on my piano.
Tanzina Vega: Cana, you talking about strawberries and Ag camp had me misting up. For folks who've been listening to the show this summer, they'll know I live on a couple of acres here in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. I've got the chickens and the ducks and all the vegetables growing. I got to say, Dr. Gerald, when I saw your bio, the one that you grew up here in Winston-Salem, where I live, that you're a North Carolina A&T Aggie, and currently teaching at North Carolina Central, two of our foundational Black colleges here and that you did your undergrad degree in animal science, I just feel like I just want to sit around and farm with y'all.
Dr. Carressa Gerald: Yes, please come on down. Come on down. My fiancé actually has a farm. He has chickens and we have eggs and all that. Yes, please come on down. [laughs] We [crosstalk] collaborate. I love it.
Tanzina Vega: This is happening. First of all, y'all come down to Winston, we'll hang out with my chickens, I'll come up to Durham, I'm going to hang out with your chickens. It's going to be like a chicken festival, but we're not going to have our chickens hanging out with each other because that's bad biosecurity. Cana, I want you to talk to me a little bit about high school. I keep introducing you by your middle school name, but you're heading off to high school in the fall. Where are you going? Do you have any big plans?
Cana Gerald: I'm going to be going to Cedar Ridge High School. I am very nervous. I don't know if I want to go but I guess I have to. [laughs] I'm very nervous about that. My big plan, I want to try to get into Robotics Club. I'm going to try to do that. I'm going to continue to read more because I love to read. I'm going to try to find some new books and look for some more things to read. I'm going to continue learning new words as always because learning new words can open many doors for you.
Tanzina Vega: I love that, and don't be nervous. I think there's a whole lot of us who've got your back as you go off to high school. I have one last question for you. We started by talking about the fact that in '06 when Akeelah and the Bee came out long before I know, '06 might seem like the beginning of time to you, but now we have a real-life Black girl who is the Scripps Spelling Bee champion. What does that mean to you?
Cana Gerald: I am very, very proud of her. She represents everyone in the Black community. She represents all girls, all Black people. I think that what she did was awesome. I like to say congratulations to her if she's watching. [laughs] I'm very surprised but not at the same time because she is very brilliant, but surprised because I've never seen this happen and now I'm a part of history that I've never thought I would ever be a part of.
Tanzina Vega: Cana Gerald who is a part of history and I'm sure will continue to make history, and to Dr. Carressa Gerald, who is my new professorial poultry buddy here in North Carolina, assistant professor of Environmental Earth and Geospatial Sciences at North Carolina Central University, thanks to both of you for joining us today.
Dr. Carressa Gerald: Thank you for having us.
Cana Gerald: Thank you.
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