Novato whiz kid preps for National Spelling Bee

Wayne Freedman Image
ByWayne Freedman KGO logo
Monday, May 27, 2019
Novato whiz kid preps for National Spelling Bee
Ever wonder what it takes to compete in the national spelling bee? A 7th grade whiz kid from Novato is getting ready to take on the challenge.

NOVATO, Calif. (KGO) -- Open the Oxford College Dictionary, turn the pages and feast your brain. Now try to remember all 180,000 words. That prospect does not daunt Mark Salama of Novato.

"You got almost every word in here, don't you?" we asked.

"Well, not every word. No. I mean, could turn a page and probably find a word I don't know."

So, maybe there's a gap or two in the mind of this 13-year-old 7th grader at Good Shepherd Lutheran Middle School in Novato. But, he does have an unusual aptitude.

"Has he ever misspelled a word?" we asked English teacher Matt Hamilton. "Never."

We would expect nothing less of the 42nd-ranked spelling bee contestant in the world.

"Spell guffaw," he challenged me.

I spelled it wrong, with an 'ah', along with rheostat, and onomatopoeia, among others.

"So try timorous?" The young man really knows how to rub salt in a wound.

"From when he was really little he was looking at books," said Mark's mother, Liz. "He was reading and understanding a newspaper at age three."

"Two and a half," corrected his father, Joe.

Mark has been hard at work in recent weeks, studying daily with a coach preparing for his Super Bowl, next week.

"Your next word is acarology," said Akshra Paimagan, the former number 23, via Skype.

Mark will travel to the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington DC. It will be his second appearance which is quite a feat.

"It's just in me that I like competitions, I guess."

By now you may wonder if Mark has something extra working in his favor. The answer? Yes. We might call it a misunderstood, unappreciated advantage.

"He likes to say he has an autistic brain rather than being autistic," explained Liz.

Closer to Asperger's on the spectrum, they say.

"I don't know, maybe the brilliance led to it," suggested Joe. "Or maybe it led to the brilliance? Maybe they correlate?"

We do know this-- in the same way that elite athletes have better coordination, Mark excels at recognizing patterns, and has a photographic memory.

For that edge, we should add that he pays an adolescent price.

"If you could live without it, would you get rid of it?" we asked him.

"That's hard to say. I mean, I like being smart but don't like being a social outcast."

He's harder on himself than the rest of us. For 13-year-old, that's admirable.