Cana Gerald

Cana Gerald competed in the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee.

This is likely the first time the word ‘trichotillomania’ has ever appeared in the News of Orange. It might also be the first time many of the paper’s readers have seen or read the word. Cana Gerald, a rising ninth grader in Orange County, has not only seen and read it, but she can spell ‘trichotillomania’ without consulting a dictionary, or typing the first few letters into Google and hoping the algorithm will correctly finish the word for you.

Gerald is also a local spelling whiz who attended A.L. Stanback Middle School. She admits to being a logophile and a voracious reader. “I had a spelling bee in kindergarten, but it wasn’t a formal spelling bee,” Cana said. “I always liked reading. Reading involves words and sounds, and I thought if I do a spelling bee, I can learn more words and then I can read more.”

Cana won the kindergarten spelling bee, although she said it wasn’t anything official. She didn’t begin competing on a more formal level until the third or fourth grade. This year, Cana won the 2021 Duke Regional Spelling Bee, which earned her a spot to compete in the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee. She was sponsored by the Duke Office of Durham & Community Affairs.

“I don’t know how to really explain all the things I was feeling when I got into Scripps,” Cana said. “It was a bunch of emotions. It was overwhelming. And then also a lot of excitement.”

To prepare, Cana was issued a list of 4,000 words that would be drawn from for the competition. “I tried to learn the majority of the words on the higher level list, and then I would go to the lower level list to make sure that I knew those. The lower level list had ‘easier’ words, and the higher level list had more science-related and bigger words,” she said.

Cana said she is not intimidated by ’science’ words. Her mother, Dr. Carressa Gerald, is an environmental scientist at North Carolina Central University, and Cana has often tagged along with her mother for field work and in the classroom.

The competition was held virtually, and when she received her word, she simply wanted to do her best. She finished tied for 139th in a field of more than 500 competitors. She was done in by the word ’noumenon,’ which is is a posited object or event that exists independently of human sense and/or perception.

Since the national spelling bee, Cana has been featured on NPR’s The Takeaway, hosted by Melissa Harris-Perry. The show, titled “Black Girl Magic at the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee” gave Cana a chance to talk about her own experiences, and also delve into the growing presence of Black girls in spelling bees. The 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee was won by 14-year-old Zaila Avant-Garde, who is Black.

Cana’s favorite stories to read are realistic fiction. She reads books and online. When she is not reading, Cana plays the piano, an instrument she took up about five years ago. She will attend Cedar Ridge High School in the fall. Cana said she would like to attend North Carolina A&T State University, and eventually pursue a career in epidemiology, a choice influenced by watching her mother balance education, career, and family.

Is her mother proud? “That’s a loaded question,” Carressa Gerald said. “It makes me feel amazing. Her dedication and her persistence to learn words that, honestly, none of us could pronounce. It tells really to her character and how much she really pushes herself. She wants to do the best she can. It makes me feel beyond excited and in awe of all her brilliance. I don’t I don’t know how she balanced everything. She was applying for summer camp and got into a couple this summer. She had her piano competition. She’s waking up at six in the morning and she gets on a piano. Somehow she juggled all of it.”

Cana did receive some help when preparing for the Scripps Spelling Bee. Her 8-year-old brother, pronounced the words as well as he could, kept her on task, sometimes to the point of arguing. 

“He’s kind of like a little brother/little dad trying to make sure she does everything,” Carressa said.