Excerpt: Aliya Deri
San Francisco, California
If the group of spellers that gathers every year for the National Bee is distinguished by a certain geek chic—the attractive nerdiness of the intellectually inclined—by comparison to many in this group, Aliya Deri falls closer to the chic end of the continuum.
Personable, mature beyond her years, with an easy laugh, Aliya has a touch of the Bay Area’s sophistication. She’s a longtime devotee of Tai Chi, a pretty fair jazz pianist, and an avid, adventurous reader who raids her father’s paperback collection. “I think my parents will agree that I read way too much,” she says, with a chuckle.
In fact, she’s an intellectual omnivore. In addition to being a top speller, she also competes in Mathcounts, performs in two orchestras—playing both violin and viola—and is a creative writer. In her rare free time, she’s a competitive swimmer and diver and an accomplished dancer. Aliya (pronounced “Olly–ah”), in short, is something of a super-girl.
But, like many super heroes, something separates her from absolute perfection, at least in the realm of competitive orthography.
It’s her nerves. The fluttering butterflies can bother her terribly. That everyone is staring at her, waiting for her to issue letters, weighs on her. Certainly she pays homage to the gods of lingual fortune: “You’re just wearing every lucky charm possible, sleeping with lucky charms under your pillow, crossing your fingers and praying that you’re going to get a word that you know.” Still, stage nerves can play havoc with her spelling, as they did in the 2004 Nationals.
At the microphone, Aliya, then in the seventh grade, spelled with a deep seriousness. She stood nearly still, her arms at her sides, with her long dark hair pulled back and parted in the middle. Despite her focus, toward the later rounds her nerves seemed to be creeping up.