St. Matthew student spells
way into national bee

Andrew Hoehn will be among 500 competitors


St. Matthew Catholic School, Virginia Beach, celebrated a red-letter day last month, as sixth-grade student Andrew Hoehn earned the first-place trophy at the Virginia Media Spelling Bee, setting him on the path to the Scripps National Spelling Bee to be held in National Harbor, Maryland, May 24-29.

Hoehn competed against 53 middle school students from across Hampton Roads, winning on the word tapetum, a Latin-based word that refers to the reflective layer found in the eyes of many animals, causing them to shine in the dark.

It’s a word that’s apropos, as part of the secret of Hoehn’s success — according to his language arts teacher, Jennifer Avis — is his ability to remain collected and composed under pressure, even when he’s center stage, with all eyes on him.

“What I love about him is that he’s always so calm,” Avis said. “He has a very even-keel personality. He’s very mature for his age, always able to think things through.”

Keep calm and spell on

Hoehn has been a student at St. Matthew since first grade. He said his favorite subjects are math and history, and that he tends to read nonfiction rather than fiction.

It’s this love of facts and his ability to keep calm and spell on, Avis said, that have proven to be a winning combination.

Hoehn explained that he began his journey to the national competition in Avis’ class last October when he participated in his first spelling bee.

“Once I had the list of words, I just made it a point to study whenever I could. Whenever I had some free time, I would take out my flash cards,” he said.

“He was really the only one in the middle school who showed that level of dedication,” Avis said. “Sometimes he would ask, ‘May I go study my words for a while?’ He liked to go out into the hall where it was quiet so he could concentrate.”

“It was just something I wanted to try,” he said, with a modest shrug.

Hoehn also credits his parents for their support.

“They helped me study on the weekends, and my dad helped me with learning Greek and Latin roots,” he said.

Hoehn won his class spelling bee and went on to participate in school-wide competition, in which he tested his spelling skills against seventh and eighth graders.

“I could tell he was nervous,” Avis said.

“Yes, I was,” Hoehn agreed.

“But he always managed to pause and think for a moment before giving his answer,” Avis added.

As a pitcher for two baseball teams, he is used to exhibiting grace under pressure.

Hoehn’s hard work and dedication saw him through in the end, earning him the win and the chance to represent his school at the regional level.

One for the team

The regional spelling bee was taped at the studios of WHRO, Hampton Roads’ public television station, on Saturday, Feb. 15, but Hoehn and the few who accompanied him decided to keep his win a surprise until the bee was televised on Saturday, Feb. 29.

“We didn’t know until we saw it on TV,” said Louis Goldberg, principal at St. Matthew. “I don’t know how they managed to keep the secret.”

“What’s really impressive is that he is a sixth grader competing against older kids, and that he spent so much time preparing. We’re all very proud of him,” he said.

In preparing for the next step, Hoehn said that he has asked his friends to quiz him during their free time, making the coaching of their classmate a school-wide effort.

Hoehn’s next stop will be the Scripps National Spelling Bee, a nationwide competition that began in 1925 when nine newspapers joined together to host the first contest. Hoehn explained that he will compete against 500 students from around the country. The first rounds of the competition will consist of computerized tests designed to narrow the pool of contestants who will go on to the final round.

“I’m a little nervous,” he admitted. “But mostly, I’m excited that I made it this far.”

Considering how far he has risen through the ranks in such a short time — making it to nationals in the first year he is eligible for the competition — there is really only one more question to ask.

“Do you use spell check?”

“No,” Hoehn said, with a quirk of a smile. “Not really.”

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