WINNING WORD: staphylococci
DEFINITION: (plural) Any of a genus of spherical Gram-positive bacteria that generally occur in irregular clusters of short chains: the pathogenic species are the cause of pus formation in boils, abscesses, etc.
Her law firm profile doesn't list her 1987 National Spelling Bee championship, but Petit still includes it in small print way down at the bottom on resumes. Her mom was her coach while her older sisters, both in graduate school, lobbed difficult practice words her way. Upon winning, she met President Reagan. "Stephanie and I had one-on-one conversation time with the Reagans as they prepared to leave for Camp David," recalls Mary Brooks who was then co-director as well as a judge of the Bee. "That was one of the last times that the entire group of competitors was invited and entertained at the White House."
After graduating first in her high school class of about 270 students, Stephanie went to Princeton and the Boalt Hall School of Law at U.C. Berkeley. She then landed a job clerking for a U.S. Circuit Court judge in Montana, and now she's a principal at a small San Francisco law firm representing such nonprofits as the Polly Klaas Foundation, Nature Conservancy, and MoveOn.org.
Looking back, she thinks the spelling bee lessons were valuable. "Learning about how to handle pressure was very, very helpful. You've got the attention of 1,000 people. There are lights, cameras. It takes a lot of discipline, at 13, to sit and stare at words and learn them. Making myself do that really taught me discipline."
In fact, it changed her personality. Says Spelling Bee Judge Blake Giddens, the 1983 national champ, "My recollection of her in 1987 was that she seemed extremely shy and diminutive. In 1992 she was gregarious and confident." Says Petit: "I learned about how you prepare yourself and then you have to let go. Luck is one factor in winning the bee...
"Now, outside my job, I try not to engage in competitive activities. I live in a condo in downtown San Francisco, go to the gym, see friends, go shopping, take yoga classes, and hang out with my boyfriend."
And yes, he knows. "He thinks it's great, he thinks it's funny. Just to get my goat, when he e-mails me, he will not correct typos." By Rita Healy