College of Arts and Sciences sponsors local spelling bee winner’s travel to national competition
Ben Lenger is surprisingly nonchalant about winning the 2017 Barnes & Noble Regional Spelling Bee on Feb. 25 in Broomfield, which netted him an all-expense-paid trip to the national finals in Washington, D.C., in May and other prizes.
But perhaps that’s no surprise. The seventh grader at Sunset Middle School in Longmont is an old hand at spelling bees, and has learned that anything can happen.
“In third grade, I made it to the third round at the Niwot (Elementary School) bee, and I said to myself, ‘Hey, I like this,’” says the 12-year-old Niwot resident.
He’s studied hard for every competition since, with mixed results. He’s bombed out and won at the school level, lost in the first round of the regional competition, and this year, beat out the 2016 champion, Cameron Keith.
“It’s luck,” he says. “I didn’t prepare any harder this year than last year, when I was out in the first round of the regionals.”
He means, quite literally, the luck of the draw. Sometimes you get a word that hangs you up, as last year’s champ did this time around. Other times, you don’t.
It doesn’t hurt, of course, to be extremely well read, and to have a PhD in organic chemistry for a father and a former English teacher for a mother, which is, Ben muses, another kind of luck.
“I love etymology, and that’s something I’ve worked on with the kids, especially with Greek and Latin roots,” says his mother, Audrey Lenger. “Not because of spelling bees, but with an eye toward general literacy and enjoyment of the English language.”
Ben agrees that having such knowledge is helpful when parsing out words.
“Obviously, knowing the roots helps a lot,” he says. “But I know most of the words just because I read a lot and I’ve seen them.”
In fact, reading his father’s college-level biology textbooks helped send him to the national competition—that’s where he first encountered “lysis,” which he successfully spelled to claim this year’s trophy.
Some of what Ben reads isn’t surprising. He loves the Harry Potter and Percy Jackson novels, as well as “The Lord of the Rings.” He enjoys reading about history. But he also makes a habit of regularly poring over the DK Encyclopedia of Science, which he received for his sixth birthday, and scouring the internet for articles about “cars, rockets, and various jet engines.”
“I want to work in the aerospace industry and rocketry,” he says.
Participating in a spelling bee in the nation’s capital is a great honor, of course, but he’s most excited about visiting the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution. And he’s not just biding his time at home: He loves building and launching Estes model rockets, which have been thrilling enthusiasts young and old since 1958.
“I’ve got this one I haven’t built yet, but it looks totally awesome. It’s a multi-re-entry vehicle, so there are three stages that fall off,” Ben says. “I’ll have to launch it on a non-windy day, or the stages will be all over the place.”
He also plays viola in his school orchestra and enjoys bicycling and skiing.
Students have participated in local and regional spelling bees to reach the Scripps National Spelling Bee since 1925. In 2017, an estimated 11 million children participated.
The CU Boulder College of Arts and Sciences has provided funding for the families of Boulder County winner to travel to the finals for three years. Ben will travel with his parents, Steve and Audrey, and younger brother Jon to this year’s competition, which starts May 28. The finals are scheduled for June 2.
“We are very grateful for the financial assistance from CU,” Audrey Lenger says.