Spelling Champion With Down Syndrome Defies Stereotypes

HONOLULU – The fact that 13-year-old Ellen Ruckmann-Bruch has won the Honolulu Waldorf School’s annual spelling bee two years in a row, speaks fluent German and English and has run three virtual marathons makes her unusual.

The fact that she did all of these things and more with Down syndrome makes her unique, at least in Hawaii.

In December, Ellen was the best speller in her school, besting 50 of her classmates in 29 rounds in the school spelling bee. She correctly spelled out words like “naughty” and “desecration” before finally winning with “tostones” (a Latin American dish of sliced ​​and fried plantains). She is now preparing for the district spelling bee on Jan. 27, a preliminary to the state and national Scripps Spelling Bee competitions.

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Ellen also won the school title in 2022, beating 64 of her classmates in about nine rounds. That qualified her for the Honolulu district spelling bee in 2023, where she finished in eighth place.

Ellen, a chatty eighth-grader who lives in Manoa, said she loves spelling because “I love words. They are like my second partner, besides these lovely parents of mine,” she said, to embarrassed laughter from her parents, Rudiger Ruckmann and Ben Bruch.

Spelling, Ellen said, “helps my brain control the words. And if my brain controls the words, it strengthens me and keeps me branching, like a tree that branches” to learn more about the world, she added, opening her arms.

Sometimes people ask if Ellen has been given easier words or if she has been told in advance what words she would have to spell in the competition. But the answer is no: Ellen has been assigned words selected at random from the same list used for all competing spellers, Bruch said. She has received no special accommodations or exceptions to the rules: “this was a totally level playing field,” he said.

Jennifer Yang, Hawaii State Spelling Bee coordinator and volunteer, said she doesn’t know of any spelling bee winners with Down syndrome in the school, district or state preliminaries in Hawaii for the Scripps National Spelling Bee. “We only know Ellen! … Since my participation in 2017, this is the first time we are aware of the participation of children with Down syndrome,” Yang said.

A spokesperson for the Scripps National Spelling Bee said the organization is not aware of any spellers with Down syndrome who have reached the national proficiency level.

Corrie Loeffler, executive director of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, said in an emailed statement: “Congratulations to Ellen, from all of us at the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Winning a school competition represents a tremendous achievement and commitment to learning. We wish you good luck at the next level of competition and look forward to continuing your spelling journey. We have no doubt that she will use the words she has learned to light up the world!

Down syndrome is a condition in which a person is born with an extra chromosome. It can cause cognitive disability, developmental delays, and physical challenges, but the severity can vary from person to person.

Ellen loved words even as a baby and “has always had a twinkle in her eye,” Ruckmann said. Her parents began reading to her from her childhood. In sixth grade, her reading was measured at a ninth-grade level, she said, and she attends general education classes at Waldorf. Since she always got good grades on spelling tests, Ellen’s parents thought the spelling bee would be a good option and signed her up.

All three say they have kept preparations for the contests light and fun. A 52-page binder containing thousands of words from the National Spelling Bee sits on the dining room table, and Ellen flips through it at will during breakfast before school. During family walks and car trips, Bruch remembers words that have tripped Ellen up in the past and questions her:

“Let’s try the term ‘entrepreneur,’” Bruch says to demonstrate.

“Entrepreneur,” Ellen enunciates softly.

He also mentions “Einstein,” “astonished,” and “fashionista,” as well as his favorite word of the moment, “grotesque.”

During the most recent spelling bee, Ruckmann, who happens to be Honolulu Waldorf’s fundraising project advisor and special assistant to the school’s principal, said he was so nervous about Ellen that he stayed home and waited for updates via of Bruch text messages. When he found out that Ellen had won again, he stood outside and sobbed.

For the family, Ellen’s victories represent triumphs over discrimination. Ellen said she had been told “I don’t count as a person, when that’s not true,” she said. “‘Oh, you have Down syndrome, are you smart?’ Of course I’m smart. ‘Are you strong, do you have muscles, do you have a brain?’ … They just try to tear you down.”

“When people meet her, she’s like any other kid,” Ruckmann said of her daughter. Ellen, whose main loves include Taylor Swift music, dragon fruit juice, gymnastics and goats, learned German because her parents speak it. She earned her “Finisher” t-shirt three times for the virtual version of the Honolulu Marathon by covering about a mile a day for about a month.

Ellen said she likes to advocate for herself and other students. “If they have Down syndrome or any other problem, they can come to me for advice and I can help them,” she said.

The three did not set out to become advocates for people with Down syndrome, Ruckmann said, but they have evolved into those roles over time. “We are just a normal family trying to live our lives and be taxpayers. “With our own journeys as a couple and as parents… the reason we have gone public is to offer hope to families.”

© 2024 The Honolulu Star Advertiser
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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